"We are ready to give a humanitarian corridor," Alexander Zakharchenko, a rebel leader, told Rossiya 24 TV on Friday, adding that troops would have to leave their heavy armoured vehicles and ammunition. The move came hours after Putin issued a statement published on the Kremlin's website overnight on Thursday, urging the separatists to "avoid unnecessary casualties".
"I call on the rebel forces to open a humanitarian corridor for the Ukrainian troops who are surrounded, so as to avoid unnecessary casualties and to give them the opportunity to withdraw from the zone of operations," said Putin. The Ukrainian military said in a statement published on Friday that Putin's call testified to only one thing - "these people (separatists) are led and controlled directly from the Kremlin".
According to the rebels, up to 7,000 Ukrainian troops are trapped at several locations in the Donbass region. Ukraine said on Thursday that the rebels had captured Novoazovsk with the help of Russian troops who had crossed over into Ukraine in "up to 100" tanks along with heavy weaponry.
Russia dismissed the allegations, describing the fighters as "Russian volunteers". The Kremlin has repeatedly denied arming and supporting the separatists who have been battling Ukrainian troops for four months in the gravest crisis between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.