Ukraine opens new checkpoints in war-torn east

Schastya (Ukraine) (AFP) –


Ukraine opened two new crossings into separatist-held territory in the east on Tuesday, but passage for civilians was blocked by authorities in the breakaway regions, officials said.

Russian-backed separatists declared autonomy from Ukraine after the pro-Western Maidan uprising and Moscow's annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014.

Transit between the so-called Donetsk People's Republic and Lugansk People's Republic has been hampered by Kiev's ongoing war with the separatists that has claimed some 13,000 lives and displaced 1.5 million.

Two new checkpoints were opened Tuesday in the Lugansk region -- adding to five existing crossings -- but the Ukrainian border guard service said separatists did not allow civilians to cross.

The agreement to open the checkpoints was reached between Ukrainian and Russian representatives along with mediators from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in late October.

An AFP correspondent saw eight people, including children, wearing masks and having their temperature taken while waiting to enter separatist territory at one of the new checkpoints near Schastya in the Lugansk region.

People laden with bags approached the crossing point but were soon turned back by separatist authorities.

Galyna, a 61-year-old woman attempting to visit her recently-widowed brother said she was not given permission by separatist authorities to enter.

"We were trying to persuade them but they said 'no'," said Galyna, who spoke on condition of withholding her last name.

Mykhailo, a 19-year-old student who regularly crosses between separatist and government held territory said the opening Tuesday of the new crossings was "a steps towards peace".

"It will make life easier for many people," he said.

Ukrainian border guard spokesman Andriy Demchenko told AFP that two people were barred entry by separatists at a new checkpoint in the town of Zolote and that no one had crossed over the checkpoints from separatist-held territory.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky told German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a phone call Tuesday that Kiev had fully complied with the agreements and blamed the separatists for not upholding them.