Civilians flee Ukraine hotspot by bus after truce agreed
Terrified civilians piled onto a convoy of buses Friday as they took advantage of a brief truce to flee the east Ukraine battleground town of Debaltseve.
Debaltseve: Terrified civilians piled onto a convoy of buses Friday as they took advantage of a brief truce to flee the east Ukraine battleground town of Debaltseve.
Clutching the few possessions they could carry, residents gathered in small groups on the shrapnel-scarred main square to seize the window of a few hours to flee the shelling.
After over a week of fierce fighting, pro-Russian rebels battling to encircle and take the town had agreed with government forces holding on there to ceasefire to allow civilians to clear out.
Two dozen buses from both the Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatist sides drove into the shattered strategic town along the few roads still navigable.
As the small crowd of inhabitants waited to leave, the boom of sporadic shelling echoed in the distance but for once the centre of the town was quiet.
"People are just asking for the bloodshed to end," local resident Petro told AFP.
"The people are begging and praying to God and to our authorities to just sit down any way that is possible and talk," he said.
"Stop the destruction and killing. We have seen enough blood."
Life for people trapped in the crossfire in Debaltseve has grown increasingly dire.
Amnesty International said earlier this week that most of the town`s former population of 25,000 had fled, but that around 7,000 civilians remain behind.
Those still in the town are forced to spend much of their time sheltering in underground bunkers without water or electricity.Government officials said they had hammered out a deal with the separatists to allow those that wanted to flee.
"We agreed that 25 buses, not one more, could come today between 8.00 am and 10.00 am, load up people and evacuate them to wherever they want to go," said regional deputy governor Oleksandr Klimenko.
Ukrainian military officials said that the same ceasefire could be enforced on Saturday to help more people flee.
A representative from the separatist authorities, Dariya Morozova, said that even though the town was under government control the rebels had demanded to send their own buses in.
"Why did we do this? To give people a choice," she said.
But despite that, most people opted to head into government-held territory.
The more than 10 buses that the Ukrainian side had sent eventually filled up entirely and set off on their way to the relative safety of towns further from the frontline.
On the other side only one of the 10 buses that was heading for the rebels` self-proclaimed Donetsk People`s Republic set off with passengers on it. The rest were empty.
Rebel officials blamed the other side for breaching the truce and scaring away those who wanted to come.
"The Ukrainians didn`t respect the ceasefire and so only some 40 people came," insurgent military spokesman Edvard Basurin told AFP.
"People were not warned that they could leave for the Donetsk People`s Republic too."