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Thursday 28 August 2014

Ukrainians flee as truce nears end

Published 26/06/2014 | 12:32

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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko delivered a speech to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (AP)

Thousands of Ukrainians in cars stuffed with belongings have been queuing at the eastern border to cross into Russia, with some saying they feel betrayed by their government and vowing never to return.

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A commander at the rebel-controlled border post south-east of the city of Luhansk said 5,000 people had left by this evening, joining a stream he said has continued unabated through a shaky ceasefire set to expire tomorrow.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have sought safety in Russia since the fighting began two months ago between government troops and Moscow-backed separatist fighters.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko today called on Russia to support his peace plan "with deeds, not words" as the week-long ceasefire nears its end in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Secretary of State John Kerry said they too are looking for more action from Moscow ahead of a summit tomorrow of European Union leaders, who will be considering a new round of punitive sanctions on Russia.

The summit will also see Ukraine sign a sweeping trade agreement with the EU that will bind it more closely to the West. It was the former Ukrainian president's sudden decision late last year to back out of the EU deal under pressure from Russia that led to his ousting and triggered the current crisis.

By declaring a ceasefire only through to tomorrow morning, Mr Poroshenko may have been trying to push forward the peace process ahead of the EU summit. Russian President Vladimir Putin has urged him to extend the truce and hold talks with the separatists, who have declared independence in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Mr Poroshenko announced today that representatives of the mutinous regions have agreed to talks in the evening with the Russian ambassador, a former Ukrainian president representing Mr Poroshenko, and a European envoy. The first round of talks on Monday brought rebel leaders to the negotiating table for the first time.

It is unclear how many Ukrainians will end up settling in Russia. Russia's migration service said last week it had registered the arrival of 90,000 Ukrainians, but few asked for refugee status because it would oblige them to stay in Russia for at least six months.

Many of those at the Izvaryne crossing today were taking household items, including fridges. One family from a village south of 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 of Alexander, said whenever there was a spike in the hostilities the flow of refugees would increase. The day before the ceasefire was announced, the line to cross the border stretched for three miles.

The United Nations estimates that from April 15 to June 20, 423 people, including servicemen and civilians, were killed in eastern Ukraine.

Even though some rebel groups agreed to observe the ceasefire, Mr Poroshenko said 18 government troops have been killed this week. Separatist leaders have also reported deaths among rebel fighters.

Speaking at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg today, Mr Poroshenko urged Moscow to stop the flow of fighters from Russia and take other steps to end the conflict.

"Without that, we cannot talk about peace," he said. "Support the peace plan with deeds, not words."

Mr Kerry, speaking in Paris, said "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".

Ms Merkel also stressed the importance for Russia to show its commitments "in the coming hours", saying that Germany will "have to decide how we will further proceed" on possible sanctions against Russia after a meeting with Mr Poroshenko tomorrow.

Mr Putin and Ms Merkel spoke by phone today, discussing extending the ceasefire and releasing people held by armed rebels, the Kremlin said.

Press Association

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