A pro-Russian fighter from a group that calls itself "Russian Orthodox Army" guards at a check point in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, June 10, 2014.
KIEV, Ukraine — A total of 270 people have died in Ukraine's embattled eastern regions since the start of the country's anti-terrorist operation nearly two months ago, Ukraine's Health Ministry said on Wednesday.
The death toll comes as the newly appointed president called for a “humanitarian corridor” to be created for civilians caught in combat zones, and as Kiev began trilateral discussions with Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to find a solution to the crisis.
According to the health ministry, which did not clarify the number of Ukrainian soldiers, insurgents or civilians killed, 225 people died in Donetsk region, including eight women, and 45 people — seven of them women — were killed in neighboring Luhansk since April 15.
Of the total number of victims, 14 died of illnesses — not as a result of the battles waged in the mostly Russian-speaking industrial regions, known collectively as the Donbass.
According to the ministry’s “preliminary information,” two children were killed this month in the city of Sloviansk, the epicenter of deadly clashes between Ukrainian military forces and armed separatists. A 12-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl died after suffering fatal shrapnel wounds, a report issued by a regional health official on Tuesday indicated.
Both sides in the conflict have used automatic and sniper rifles, mortars and heavy weapons on each other during battles, while Kiev has also utilized airstrikes, leading to the destruction of dozens of residential and commercial buildings in several cities and villages.
Much of Sloviansk has been without electricity, running water and mobile phone service for days. The nearby village of Semenivka, another insurgent stronghold, was all but leveled after it was shelled by the military.
Alyona Tereshchenko, a Health Ministry official, told reporters in Kiev on Wednesday that 251 sites, including hotels and summer camps, have been set up to house refugees and can hold up to 30,000 people. Some 7,000 already are using the facilities, she said. In a surreal twist, dozens have taken up temporary residence in servants’ quarters at the lavish estate of disgraced former President Viktor Yanukovych on the outskirts of the capital.
Vladislav Seleznev, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s military, said on Wednesday that the country’s forces were assisting local governments in the southeast to ensure the safe evacuation of civilians.
“We do this with the help of checkpoints set up at key points in northern Donetsk region, and by creating mobile patrols that monitor the situation and move along roads,” Seleznev said.“We do this with the help of checkpoints set up at key points in northern Donetsk region, and by creating mobile patrols that monitor the situation and move along roads,” Seleznev said.
In another important sign of de-escalation, trilateral talks between representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have been ongoing since Sunday, a move praised by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
In a phone call on Wednesday, Biden commended Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for his willingness to bring the parties to the table to discuss a peaceful end to the conflict.
But the talks so far are yet to scratch the surface of the issue and have instead been merely discussions about holding peace negotiations and the possible format they might take, according to interim Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia.
“The contact group is working and consultations are taking place with the Russian side and representatives from the OSCE,” Interfax reported Deshchytsia as saying on Wednesday. “We so far aren’t talking about negotiations.”
“We do not need talks for the sake of the talks,” he said, however. “Our peace plan should be the basis for the further de-escalation of the conflict. Terrorists must lay down their arms.”