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Putin urges release of Ukrainian soldiers

By Agencies in Moscow and Kiev | China Daily | Updated: 2014-08-30 08:07

Humanitarian situation 'alarming', fighting killed nearly 2,600, UN says

Russian President Vladimir Putin called on separatists on Friday to release Ukrainian soldiers they have surrounded in eastern Ukraine.

Putin's statement came several hours after Ukraine accused Russia of entering its territory with tanks, artillery and troops. Western powers have accused Moscow of lying about its role and dangerously escalating the conflict.

NATO said at least 1,000 Russian troops are in Ukraine and later released what it said were satellite photos of Russian self-propelled artillery units on the move last week.

On Friday, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen called on Russia to halt its "illegal" military actions in Ukraine.

"We condemn in the strongest terms Russia's continued disregard of its international obligations," Rasmussen said after an emergency meeting on the crisis.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a televised news conference on Friday, dismissed the accusations of an invasion, saying that Moscow "has not been presented with any facts" proving that it had happened.

"I'm calling on insurgents to open a humanitarian corridor for Ukrainian troops who were surrounded in order to avoid senseless deaths," Putin said in the statement published on the Kremlin's website in the early hours on Friday.

Putin did not address the claims about Russia's military presence in Ukraine. Instead, he lauded the separatists for "undermining Kiev's military operation that threatened the lives of the residents of Donbass and has already led to a colossal death toll among civilians".

Putin's statement could refer to Ukrainian troops that have been trapped outside the strategic town of Ilovaysk, east of Donetsk, for nearly a week. Protesters rallied outside the Ukrainian General Staff on Thursday, demanding reinforcements and heavy weaponry for the troops outside Ilovaysk, most of whom are volunteers.

A top separatist leader in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk promptly reacted to Putin's appeal but said the Ukrainian troops would have to lay down their arms before they would be allowed to go.

"With all our respect to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the president of a country which gives us moral support, we are ready to open humanitarian corridors to the Ukrainian troops who were surrounded, with the condition that they surrender heavy weaponry and ammunition so that this weaponry and ammunition will not be used against us in the future," Alexander Zakharchenko said on Russia's state Rossiya 24 television.

On Friday, the UN human rights office accused both sides of deliberately targeting civilians.

UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic, who visited Kiev on Friday, said the death toll had reached nearly 2,600 by Wednesday, and described the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine as "alarming".

Simonovic condemned the rebels for preventing people from leaving cities caught up in the fighting. He also pointed to reports of violations by volunteer battalions under government control.

In a talk on Friday afternoon, Putin compared Ukrainian troops firing at civilians and surrounding cities in eastern Ukraine to Nazi invaders who laid siege to Leningrad from 1941 to 1944. He said residents of Ukraine's eastern region were "suppressed with force" because they disagreed with what he called a coup in Kiev in February.

AP - AFP - Reuters

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