Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday ordered government security agencies to help civilians escape separatist fighting and relocate to safety, his office announced.
The order to create civilian evacuation routes out of areas where at least 200 people have died in more than two months of fighting coincides with an escalation in the intensity of clashes and what appear to be more concerted efforts by Ukraine's beleaguered government forces to roll back the gains of the pro-Russia separatists.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian military operation aimed at recovering rebel-occupied buildings and facilities in eastern Ukraine said 43 separatist gunmen died in failed attempts early Tuesday to seize airfields in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, along the border with Russia.
Poroshenko, who was inaugurated on Saturday, has vowed to end the fighting between government forces and the pro-Russia separatists by the end of this week. His order for aid to fleeing civilians could signal intent to intensify the government forces' campaign to drive out the gunmen.
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry reported unspecified progress a day earlier in negotiations with Russia in Kiev that are being mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE's involvement is significant as the 57-nation alliance is the only security group that includes Russia and Ukraine, and the agency's mediator, veteran Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, has experience brokering peace agreements in other regional hot spots such as Georgia and Chechnya.
"We're at the point where there is the real possibility of achieving a cease-fire," OSCE chairman and Swiss President Didier Burkhalter told journalists in Bern on Tuesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted that the Ukrainian government stand down its troops in eastern Ukraine to facilitate a peace accord with the rebels who control key government facilities in at least a dozen towns and cities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Poroshenko has given no indication that he will comply with that demand, instead offering Russian gunmen involved in the fighting free passage out to their home country if they lay down their arms.
Putin has steadfastly denied arming or instigating the rebels seeking to wrest territory from Ukraine and annex it to Russia, and he has given no response to the separatists' appeals to link the areas they have seized and proclaimed independent to the neighboring state. The Kremlin leader's handling of the eastern Ukraine conflict has differed sharply from his swift annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in March after a hasty and dubious referendum.
At a separate meeting in St. Petersburg, the Russian imperial capital, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov conferred with his counterparts from Poland and Germany on ways to resolve the Ukraine crisis.
Lavrov welcomed Poroshenko's plan to provide civilian evacuation corridors but called again for a halt in all military operations, claiming that government attacks have escalated in some areas.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees officials said last week that at least 10,000 people had been displaced by the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Lavrov said Russia was caring for more than 30,000 refugees from Ukraine in the neighboring Rostov region alone. Convoys of civilians have been seen leaving embattled areas like Slovyansk and Kramatorsk on a daily basis as fighting has intensified over the last two weeks.
The statement on the Ukrainian presidential website said Deputy Social Policy Minister Vitaly Mushchynin met with the regional UNHCR representative to discuss means of providing evacuees with accommodation, social assistance, pensions and employment in the areas to which they are relocated.
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