Desperate Civilians Evacuate Ukraine During Humanitarian Truce

PHOTO: Ukrainian children look through a window of a bus near Artemivsk, eastern Ukraine, Feb. 5, 2015, as people are evacuated from Debaltseve.
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A nine-hour humanitarian truce is currently holding in Ukraine, pro-Russian rebel officials and Ukrainian government officials told ABC News Friday. The two sides agreed that a humanitarian corridor would last from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. local time (11 a.m. ET), allowing civilians to evacuate from Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub that has become the epicenter of recent fighting.

BBC News described the town as “almost too dangerous for civilians,” and many have been trapped in the cross-fire, left without power, heating or running water for almost two weeks, reports the Associated Press.

“Corpses lie on the road, nobody takes them away anymore. People have psychosis, they are afraid to leave the cellar. There is no water, electricity or gas… people have no opportunity to prepare meals or wash their children. They’re melting snow to get water to drink,” Yulia, a recent evacuee from Debaltseve told the Kyiv Post.

PHOTO: Civilians board a bus near Artemivsk, eastern Ukraine, Feb. 5, 2015, as people are evacuated from Debaltseve.
Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo
Civilians board a bus near Artemivsk, eastern Ukraine, Feb. 5, 2015, as people are evacuated from Debaltseve.

Some 5,400 people have died since April, the UN says, and many that are left in the area surrounding Debaltseve are boarding buses today to escape the fighting. Alexander Motuyanik, a Ukrainian military official told ABC News that the truce will also extend tomorrow from 8 a.m.-10 p.m. local time.

“There are four points that people can choose to evacuate from,” a rebel official told ABC News. “And two directions: into the government-held areas or into the rebel-held areas.” Roughly 1,000 people are expected to be evacuated on Friday, reported the AP.

But it’s not the first truce the two sides have attempted, and a Ukrainian official tells ABC News, “We will see if terrorists respect it.” Echoed on the rebel side, “we will [respect the truce] if Kiev will keep its promise,” a rebel official tells ABC News.

Merkel and Hollande to the Rescue

Just before the truce expires on Friday, German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande are expected to meet with Russian President Putin in the Kremlin, ramping up pressure on Russia to agree on a peace plan for Ukraine.

The two European leaders touched down in Moscow after spending the day in Ukraine meeting with officials in Kiev alongside US Secretary of State Kerry.

PHOTO: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, center, French President Francois Hollande, right, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel shake hands during their meeting in Kiev, Ukraine, Feb. 5, 2015.
Mykola Lazarenko/AP Photo
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, center, French President Francois Hollande, right, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel shake hands during their meeting in Kiev, Ukraine, Feb. 5, 2015.

Few details were released about the meetings, but Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin tweeted that the leaders discussed “steps so that the Minsk agreement can start working.

Back in September, the two sides signed a truce in Minsk, Belarus that called for a cease-fire and an international monitors along the Ukraine-Russia border, but the deal collapsed. Each side accuse the other of bringing it down.

Following the meetings, Secretary Kerry said “President Putin can make the choices that could end this war.” Adding: "Let there be no doubt about who is blocking the prospects for peace here," Kerry said, directly referring to Moscow.

In a sign of how seriously Europe is taking the recent escalation, this will be Merkel’s first trip to Moscow since the fighting broke out. "We don't know if we will have long or short talks in Moscow or if these will be the last talks. We can only do what we can to resolve this conflict and especially to end the bloodshed,” she said at a press conference before departing for Moscow.

Her spokesman, Steffen Seibert tweeted: "Chancellor Merkel on the way to Moscow tweets: We are not neutral agents but demand peace and self-determination of peoples.”

The frantic diplomatic wrangling comes amid a debate in Washington whether to arm the Ukrainian military, a move both Germany or France believe could risk widening the conflict. Secretary Kerry said President Obama would decide “soon” whether to deliver lethal weapons to Kiev.