Four of eight observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe who were held hostage in eastern Ukraine have been released.
They were freed as a shaky ceasefire in the east entered its final hours, and thousands of Ukrainians in cars stuffed with belongings lined up at the border to cross into Russia, some vowing never to return.
Many said they were most frightened for their children and desperate to take them to safety.
OSCE said that four of eight of its observers who were kidnapped by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine a month ago were released in Donetsk.
In late May, it lost contact with four monitors from its Donetsk team and four monitors from its Luhansk team, the organisation said. The Luhansk-based team has not yet been released.
The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France had agreed on Wednesday in a telephone call that the hostages should be freed without delay, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert said.
Meanwhile a commander at the rebel-controlled border post outside the city of Luhansk said 5,000 people had left by evening, joining a stream that he said has continued unabated during the week-long truce that has failed to end the gunfire and shelling.
Russia says tens of thousands of Ukrainians have come in the two-and-a-half months since Ukraine’s government began fighting separatists in the east, a heavily industrial region with a large population of ethnic Russians, many of whom feel strong ties to Moscow.
Air strikes and artillery attacks by the Ukrainian military have infuriated many residents, and many crossing the border said they were fleeing the fighting, which has killed more than 400 people since mid-April by the United Nations’ estimate.
With the ceasefire set to expire today, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called on Russia to support his peace plan “with deeds, not words”.
He urged Moscow to stop the flow of fighters from Russia.
Mrs Merkel and US Secretary of State John Kerry said they, too, were looking for more action from Moscow ahead of a summit today of EU leaders, who will be considering a new round of sanctions against Russia.
“It is critical for Russia to show in the next hours, literally, that they’re moving to help disarm the separatists, to encourage them to disarm,” Mr Kerry said in Paris.
The summit also will see Ukraine sign a sweeping trade agreement with the EU that will bind it more closely to the West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has urged Mr Poroshenko to extend the truce and hold talks with the separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Mr Poroshenko announced yesterday that representatives of the mutinous regions have agreed to talks with Russian, Ukrainian and European envoys.
It will be the second round of talks since Monday in which the rebel leaders have participated.
Russian news agencies quoted Andrei Purgin, a leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, as saying the next round would be held today in Donetsk.
Mr Poroshenko has shown no willingness to extend the ceasefire, and his next step may hinge on the outcome of the talks.
It was unclear how many Ukrainians will end up settling in Russia. Russia’s migration service said last week that it had registered the arrival of 90,000 Ukrainians, but few asked for refugee status, which would oblige them to stay in Russia at least six months.
Many of those at the Izvaryne crossing yesterday were taking household items, including refrigerators.
One family from a village near Slovyansk, a separatist stronghold that has come under frequent shelling from the military, said they “hated Ukraine” and would not return.
Even though some rebel groups agreed to observe the cease-fire, Mr Poroshenko said 18 government troops have been killed this week. Separatist leaders have also reported deaths among rebel fighters.
Germany announced that it is easing its immigration restrictions for Jews from Ukraine because of reports of an increase in anti-Semitic incidents since the crisis broke out.