Separatist rebels have agreed to participate in further peace talks Friday aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported Thursday.
Early on Friday, in an apparent goodwill gesture, the separatist rebels released four out of eight international observers, captured over a month ago.
They had detained eight observers from the Vienna-based Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a key security and rights body, tasked with monitoring an agreement drafted in Switzerland in April to de-escalate the crisis that has pitted the rebels against leaders in Kiev.
The four were released in downtown Donetsk. Another four remain in rebel captivity in the neighboring Luhansk region. Securing the release of the four OSCE hostages has been a part of peace consultations between mediators of the Kiev government, OSCE, Russia and rebel separatist leaders.
"There is an agreement to hold a round of consultations on June 27 in Donetsk," Andrei Purgin, a senior figure in the leadership of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, was quoted as saying.
The peace talks are the latest sign that conflict may be winding down in the country, which has been plagued with unrest since Ukrainians ousted Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in February. Earlier this week, breakaway parts of Ukraine agreed to observe a cease-fire, and Russian President Vladimir Putin said he also supported a cease-fire.
Earlier, speaking in Strasbourg, France, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he had just heard of the rebels' readiness to meet again with the so-called "contact group" which includes former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, Moscow's envoy to Kiev and a high-ranking official from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a security and rights watchdog.
But Ukrainian media quoted Poroshenko as hinting that there would be no extension of a government ceasefire, which officially ends at 10 p.m. Friday, unless Kiev is satisfied with the results of that day's talks.
"It is a very important day: If our conditions for the peace plan are not accepted, then we will make a very important decision," he was quoted as saying by Ukrainska Pravda online newspaper.
Poroshenko, who was speaking at the Council of Europe on Thursday and will sign a landmark free-trade agreement with the European Union in Brussels on Friday, has offered rebel fighters amnesty and safe transport out of the country if they lay down their arms and cease hostilities.
He is also offering people in the mainly Russian-speaking east broader Russian-language rights, and will next week present a decentralization plan aimed at allowing the regions more control over their own finances and affairs.
That did not, however, keep thousands of people in cars stuffed with belongings, from lining 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.
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 weeklong truce that has failed to end the gunfire and shelling.