Thousands flee Ukraine for Russia as uncertain truce comes to an end
Russia says at least 90,000 Ukrainians have crossed the border to escape unrest that has killed more than 400 as rebels release four detained OSCE observers and EU leaders meet over sanctions
As a shaky ceasefire in the east entered its final hours on Thursday, thousands of Ukrainians in cars stuffed with belongings lined up at the border to cross into Russia, some vowing never to return.
Many said they were most frightened for their children and desperate to take them to safety.
Also on Thursday, four of eight observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) who were held hostage in eastern Ukraine were released, the organisation said in a news release.
A commander at the rebel controlled border post outside the city of Luhansk said 5,000 people had left by evening, joining a stream that he said has continued unabated during the weeklong truce that has failed to end the gunfire and shelling.
Russia says tens of thousands of Ukrainians have come in the ten weeks since Ukraine’s government began fighting separatists in the east, a heavily industrial region with a large population of ethnic Russians, many of whom feel strong ties to Moscow.
Air strikes and artillery attacks by the Ukrainian military have infuriated many residents, and many crossing the border on Thursday said they were fleeing the fighting, which has killed more than 400 people since mid-April according to a United Nations’ estimate.
Those who talked to journalists, however, said nothing to indicate that they supported the armed separatists, who have seized government buildings, declared independence and asked Russia to annex the region.
With the ceasefire set to expire on Friday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called on Russia to support his peace plan “with deeds, not words”. He urged Moscow to stop the flow of fighters from Russia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Secretary of State John Kerry said they, too, were looking for more action from Moscow ahead of a summit on Friday of European Union leaders, who will be considering a new round of sanctions against Russia.
“It is critical for Russia to show in the next hours, literally, that they’re moving to help disarm the separatists, to encourage them to disarm,” Kerry said in Paris.
The summit also will see Ukraine sign a sweeping trade agreement with the EU that will bind it more closely to the West.
Poroshenko announced on Thursday that representatives of the mutinous regions have agreed to talks with Russian, Ukrainian and European envoys. It will be the second round of talks since Monday in which the rebel leaders have participated.
Russian news agencies quoted Andrei Purgin, a leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, as saying the next round would be held on Friday in Donetsk.
Poroshenko has shown no willingness to extend the ceasefire, and his next step may hinge on the outcome of the talks.
It was unclear how many Ukrainians will end up settling in Russia. Russia’s migration service said last week that it had registered the arrival of 90,000 Ukrainians, but few asked for refugee status, which would oblige them to stay in Russia at least six months.
Many of those at the Izvaryne crossing on Thursday were taking household items, including refrigerators. One family from a village near Slovyansk, a separatist stronghold that has come under frequent shelling from the military, said they “hated Ukraine” and would not return.
The rebel commander, who would give only his first name, Alexander, said the flow of refugees increased whenever there was a spike in hostilities. The day before the ceasefire was announced, the line to cross the border stretched for 5 kilometres.
Even though some rebel groups agreed to observe the ceasefire, Poroshenko said 18 government troops have been killed this week. Separatist leaders also have reported deaths among rebel fighters.
Meanwhile, Germany announced that it is easing its immigration restrictions for Jews from Ukraine because of reports of an increase in anti-Semitic incidents since the crisis broke out.
The OSCE said in its news release that four of eight of its observers who were kidnapped by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine a month ago were released in Donetsk.
In late May, the OSCE lost contact with four monitors from its Donetsk team and four monitors from its Luhansk team, the organisation said. The Luhansk-based team has not yet been released.
The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France had agreed on Wednesday in a telephone call that the hostages should be freed without delay, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert said.