On Friday pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian authorities agreed on a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from the epicenter of fighting in eastern Ukraine, rebel and government officials said, as German and French leaders prepared to bring their peace plan to Moscow.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande are set to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin a day after discussing their proposals with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
The diplomatic blitz comes amid fierce fighting that prompted Washington to consider providing the beleaguered Ukrainian military with lethal weapons, in turn sparking European fears of even wider hostilities.
Rebel leaders said they reached agreement with Ukrainian authorities to allow the evacuation of civilians from Debaltseve, a key railway hub that has become the main target of a rebel offensive because of its strategic location. It wasn’t immediately clear where the evacuees would go.
The cease-fire around Debaltseve held Friday as a convoy of several dozen buses drove from nearby Vuhelhirsk toward Debaltseve, where a shrinking population has been trapped in cross-fire and left without power, heating and running water for almost two weeks.
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Zorian Shkiryak, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister, said on Facebook that “the green corridor has been confirmed.” Eduard Basurin, a rebel spokesman in Donetsk, said about 1,000 civilians were expected to be evacuated on Friday.
Half-way to Debaltseve, the convoy was met by a Ukrainian armored personnel carrier with a soldier on top warily pointing a gun toward nearby hills. More Ukrainian military trucks and armored vehicles were parked on the outskirts of Debaltseve, devastated by artillery barrage. A bulldozer bore an inscription “Putin is a piece of crap,” sprayed with white paint.
The boom of heavy artillery was heard at a distance, but there was no sign of fighting nearby.
The hostilities in eastern Ukraine between Russia-backed separatist rebels and Ukrainian forces has intensified sharply over the past two weeks. Russia vehemently denies that it is backing the insurgency with troops and weapons, but US Secretary of State John Kerry rejected that denial on Thursday’s visit to Kiev.
Kerry said President Barack Obama “is reviewing all his options; among those options obviously is the possibility of providing defensive systems to Ukraine.”
Germany and other European nations remain fiercely opposed to sending arms to Ukraine, fearing it could intensify the conflict and further polarize the West and Russia.
France and Germany were hoping this time they can come up with a peace deal acceptable both to Ukraine and Russia. In a sign of the importance of the initiative, this will be Merkel’s first trip to Moscow since Ukraine’s conflict broke out last year.
Western diplomats said Putin gave the French and Germans a nine-page peace plan, and that Hollande and Merkel were taking a repackaged version of that with them. The European version drops the most objectionable elements of the Russian plan to fit what Ukraine and the Europeans want, but it does offer some autonomy for eastern Ukraine with special protections for language, culture and local taxes, the diplomats said.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said on Twitter that the leaders discussed “steps so that the Minsk agreement can start working,” a reference to September’s deal that envisaged a cease-fire, the pullback of heavy weaponry by both sides, international monitoring of the Ukraine-Russia border and a degree of autonomy for the east. The deal has failed and the warring parties have accused each another for violating it.
More than 5,300 people have been killed since the separatist insurgency flared up in eastern Ukraine in April following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.