- Our Town
Thousands flee Ukraine for Russia; truce nears end
By Balint Szlanko, The Associated Press
IZVARYNE, Ukraine - As a shaky cease-fire in the east entered its final hours 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 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe who were held hostage in eastern Ukraine were released, the organization 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 2 1/2 months 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 by the United Nations' estimate.
Those who talked to Associated Press 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 cease-fire 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 U.S. 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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has urged Poroshenko to extend the truce and hold talks with the separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Poroshenko announced 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 Friday in Donetsk.
Poroshenko has shown no willingness to extend the cease-fire, 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 cease-fire was announced, the line to cross the border stretched for 5 kilometres (3 miles).
Even though some rebel groups agreed to observe the cease-fire, 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.
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 organization 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.
Nataliya Vasilyeva and Lynn Berry in Moscow, Angela Charlton and Lara Jakes in Paris, Juergen Baetz in Berlin and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.