Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on pro-Moscow separatists fighting government troops in eastern Ukraine to open a "humanitarian corridor" to allow trapped Ukrainian soldiers to escape.
President Putin's statement was published on the Kremlin's website in the early hours on Friday.
"I call on the rebel forces to open a humanitarian corridor for the Ukrainian troops who are surrounded, so as to avoid unnecessary casualties and to give them the opportunity to withdraw from the zone of operations," he said.
The "zone of operations" may refer to the eastern town of Novoazovsk and surrounding area that was taken over by rebels on Thursday. Some government troops remain encircled by rebels in the area.
Separatist leader and prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, said on Friday he had agreed to open a humanitarian corridor after President Putin's statement, Reuters reported.
"We are ready to give a humanitarian corridor," Zakharchenko said adding that Ukrainian troops would have to leave their heavily armored vehicles and ammunition.
Russian forces in Ukraine?
The call comes after Kyiv and the West accused Russia of entering Ukrainian territory with tanks, artillery and troops on Thursday.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko cancelled a visit to Turkey because of the "rapidly deteriorating situation" in the eastern Donetsk region, "as Russian troops have actually been brought into Ukraine," he said Thursday.
At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on the matter, the US and several other members called for an immediate withdrawal of Russian forces.
"Serious negotiations are needed, but Russia has to stop lying and has to stop fueling this conflict," said Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN.
NATO said at least 1,000 Russian troops are in Ukraine and released satellite photos of what it said were Russian self-propelled artillery units moving last week.
Russian officials have rejected claims that the military is stationed in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic.
On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that EU ministers were scheduled to meet Saturday to discuss the situation in Ukraine.
According to the UN's latest report on Friday, at least 2,593 people have been killed in the conflict since mid-April. The report also noted human rights violations like abductions and torture are "committed primarily by the armed groups" fighting the Ukrainian army.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told a UN conference on Friday in Indonesia that he is, "gravely concerned by the deteriorating situation in Ukraine."
"There is an urgent need to ensure a secure border between the two countries with international verification," he added.
hc/ng (Reuters, AFP, AP)
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