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Ukraine orders escape corridors for fleeing civilians

MOSCOW — President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine ordered on Tuesday the creation of escape corridors for civilians who want to flee the violence-torn eastern part of the country, where pro-Russian separatists have been battling the Ukrainian military and other security forces for more than two months.

The separatist insurgency in the east, and the Ukrainian government’s “counterterrorism operation” that is intended to squash the uprising, have effectively plunged the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, along the border with Russia, into a civil war, with civilian casualties and damage to private homes and businesses increasing in recent weeks.

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Poroshenko’s instructions to create a corridor for people displaced from the east came after he met with the leaders of the country’s security service, Defense Ministry, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the state emergency services agency.

“To prevent new victims in the area of the counter-terrorism operation, the president of Ukraine instructed the heads of law enforcement agencies to create all necessary conditions for the civilian population that wants to leave,” the presidential administration said in a statement Tuesday.

The administration said Poroshenko had ordered not only transportation assistance but also expanded health care services, as well as supplies of food, water, and medicine.

Poroshenko, who was sworn in as president Saturday, used his inauguration speech in part to offer safe passage to Russian fighters wishing to return home, and amnesty for rebels who put down their weapons, but he has said he will not negotiate with armed insurgents.

In the days before his inauguration, the government stepped up efforts to end the uprising, including some efforts to eliminate rebels from populated areas like the city of Slovyansk, where a number of homes have been damaged by mortar fire.

Three-way talks aimed at a diplomatic resolution — held between Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — have achieved some progress in recent days, officials have said, but there has been no firm agreement. Past efforts to broker a truce, involving European and US officials, have failed.

The Russian government has claimed to have no formal role in the separatist insurrection and no control over the fighters, though a number of senior rebel leaders have openly identified themselves as Russian citizens, and many rebels killed in fighting with the Ukrainian forces were found to be Russian citizens carrying Russian passports.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, after meeting Tuesday with his counterparts from Poland and Germany, said he was confident that a decision by Poroshenko’s government to halt the counterterrorism operation would be met with a cease-fire by rebels.

Lavrov met with the Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, and the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in St. Petersburg.

“The key to a de-escalation of the situation, of course in our belief, is the cessation of this military operation against the protesters,” Lavrov said. “Then, the people that you call separatists, I am sure will answer reciprocally.”

Lavrov added, “When military aviation attacks the center of a city, as it was in Luhansk, when artillery is used for shooting at residential neighborhoods, armored personnel carriers, tanks, then most likely you cannot condemn people for wanting to defend those cities, those villages, in which they and their children live.”

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