Western and Russian officials have called for urgent dialogue to end Ukraine's bloody crisis, after Kiev unveiled plans to help civilians escape eastern areas where it says Moscow is still aiding separatist rebels.
“In order to avoid new victims in the area . . . holding the counter-terrorist operation, the president instructed heads of law enforcement and military agencies to provide all the necessary conditions for civilians willing to move,” Petro Poroshenko’s office said in a statement yesterday.
The confectionary billionaire, who took office on Saturday, also ordered officials to supply “transportation of people and medical services . . . a network of mobile units to provide the civilian population with drinking water, food and medicines and . . . accommodation”.
Scores of people have been killed, including civilians, since Ukraine launched an operation to crush rebels who have seized swaths of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions and called for unification with neighbouring Russia.
Clashes continued in the east yesterday, with officials saying at least 40 rebels had been killed in fighting around Kramatorsk airfield in Donetsk province.
Kiev and its western allies say Russian fighters and advanced weapons have crossed the border in large numbers: gunmen have admitted coming from Chechnya, and the rebels have shot down several Ukrainian military helicopters with shoulder-launched missiles.
The government in Kiev yesterday accused Russia of “co-operating with terrorists” by continuing to allow traffic to cross into Ukraine through a border post that was officially closed after fierce recent clashes along the frontier.
Moscow denies helping the insurgents and has called on Mr Poroshenko to declare a ceasefire and start talks with representatives from eastern regions where ties with Russia – and suspicion of Kiev’s new leaders – are strong.
"We've heard that president Poroshenko spoke in favour of the creation of corridors for refugees. We welcome this," Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said after talks with his German and Polish counterparts in St Petersburg.
“We are convinced, and our partners share this view, as far as I understand, that . . . it is indispensable to focus on an unconditional and immediate ceasefire and the start of dialogue,” he added.
Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said he saw “a readiness from all sides to act to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine”, calling it a “light at the end of the tunnel”.
“I am not saying that we have found a way out of the crisis but escalation has given way to a new atmosphere,” he added. “The elections in Ukraine have shown that a majority supports the president and a majority is in favour of Ukraine’s unity.”
Mr Poroshenko came to power with a landslide victory in elections on May 25th. He pledged to stabilise the country and boost its ties with the west.
Russia has long opposed such a move and after Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovich fled violent protests in Kiev in February, Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine and hiked the price the country must pay for gas.
Talks brokered by the EU to end the energy dispute are expected to continue today.