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An armed pro-Russian rebel stands guard in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on June 27, 2014.
Bloodshed mars Ukraine cease-fire
Four soldiers killed as military moves to take over a checkpoint seized by pro-Russian separatists
June 28, 20148:59AM ET
Four Ukrainian soldiers were killed and five others wounded overnight Friday as the military moved to regain control of a checkpoint in the country’s eastern region that had been seized by separatist rebels. The fighting violated a cease-fire agreement between officials in Kiev and rebel leaders who, just hours earlier, had agreed to extend their truce until Monday.
The cease-fire extension had been undertaken in line with a deadline set by European Union leaders for pro-Russia rebels to halt violence, return border checkpoints to Kiev authorities, and free hostages including detained monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a rights and security watchdog.
In accordance with EU demands, rebels released four OSCE monitors late Saturday. They are the second group of four observers to be released since Friday. All representatives of the organization are now free.
Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, also demanded that recruitment centers for rebel fighters on the Russian border close for the remainder of the cease-fire.
Earlier on Friday, Poroshenko signed a trade agreement with the European Union – the abandoned signing of which last year sparked protests that led to the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovich and ongoing unrest.
Moscow, which is wary of losing influence in Ukraine, immediately responded to Friday’s economic pact by threatening “grave consequences.” In March, Russia responded to the uprising against Yanukovich’s rule by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Thought it’s not clear whether Friday’s fighting will jeopardize the wider 72-hour cease-fire, the deadly violence underscores the deeply fragile state of negotiations between pro-Russian fighters and the Western-backed government in Kiev.
Meanwhile, some 110,000 people have fled to Russia from Ukraine, while more than 54,000 have been displaced inside the conflict-torn country, the U.N. said on Friday.
"Since the start of 2014, 110,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Russia," Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the U.N.'s refugee agency, told reporters.
"The rise in numbers of the past week coincides with a recent deterioration of the situation in eastern Ukraine. Displaced people cite worsening law and order, fear of abductions, human rights violations and the disruption of state services," Fleming added.
She said that most had fled from the embattled eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, where Ukrainian forces are battling separatists.
However, she underlined that it was not possible to say whether most or all of those fleeing to neighboring Russia were from Ukraine's Russian-speaking population.
Claims that Russian-speakers in Ukraine are under threat have been cited regularly by the rebels and Moscow, though U.N. human rights probes have said there is little evidence for such fears.
"Only 9,500 have requested asylum. Most people are seeking other forms of legal stay, often because they're concerned about complications involving seeking asylum or since there might be reprisals if they return to Ukraine," Fleming said.