Thousands flee Ukraine for Russia; truce nears end
IZVARYNE, Ukraine (AP) — Thousands of Ukrainians in cars stuffed with belongings lined up Thursday at the eastern border to cross into Russia, with some saying they felt betrayed by their government and vowing never to return.
A commander at the rebel-controlled border post southeast of the city of Luhansk said 5,000 people had left by evening, joining a stream he said has continued unabated through a shaky cease-fire set to expire on Friday.
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 on Thursday called on Russia to support his peace plan “with deeds, not words” as the weeklong cease-fire neared its end in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
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 punitive sanctions on Russia.
The summit also will 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 ouster and triggered the current crisis.
By declaring a cease-fire only through Friday morning, 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.
Poroshenko announced Thursday that representatives of the mutinous regions have agreed to talks in the evening with the Russian ambassador, a former Ukrainian president representing Poroshenko, and a European envoy. The first round of talks on Monday brought rebel leaders to the negotiating table for the first time.
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 because it would oblige them to stay in Russia for at least six months.
Many of those at the Izvaryne crossing on Thursday were taking household items, including refrigerators. 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, Alexander, said whenever there was a spike in the hostilities the flow of refugees would increase. The day before the cease-fire was announced, the line to cross the border stretched for 5 kilometers (3 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 cease-fire, Poroshenko said 18 government troops have been killed this week. Separatist leaders also have reported deaths among rebel fighters.
Speaking at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on Thursday, 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,” Poroshenko said. “Support the peace plan with deeds, not words.”
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.”
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 Poroshenko on Friday.
Putin and Merkel spoke by phone on Thursday, discussing extending the cease-fire and releasing people held by armed rebels, the Kremlin said.