- Associated Press - Friday, June 20, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered his forces to cease fire Friday and halt military operations for seven days against pro-Russia separatists in the country’s east - the first step in what he hoped is a concrete plan to end the conflict that has cost more than 350 lives.

Poroshenko, speaking during his first trip as president to the troubled east, said troops would still return fire if attacked.

“The forces of the anti-terrorist operation will halt military action starting today and through June 27,” Poroshenko was cited as saying by the Interior Ministry on its website.

“Combat action will only be of retaliatory character if rebels attack our forces,” he added.

He made announcement while speaking with residents in the town of Sviatohirsk in the Donetsk region. Refugees from the rebel-held town of Slovyansk where some of the worst fighting has taken place were also at the meeting.

Separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have declared independence from his government in Kiev. Rebel leaders have dismissed the plan and it remains to be seen to what extent they would comply.

Poroshenko has said a short cease-fire will give separatists time to lay down their arms and leave the country. Other steps include joint security patrols, new local and parliamentary elections, steps to protect language rights of the many Russian speakers in the area, and a jobs program.

On his visit, Poroshenko also visited the Monastery of the Holy Dormition near Syvatohirsk, an ancient Orthodox Christian monastery on the banks of the Seversky Donets river.

Earlier in the day, seven Ukrainian troops were killed in overnight fighting in the restive east as clashes between government forces and pro-Russia rebels flared ahead of the cease-fire.

Separatists were operating tanks in the region, a particular sore point for Ukraine, which accuses Russia of letting the vehicles and other heavy weaponry cross the border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has voiced concern about the Ukrainian military operation against the rebels but has resisted both the rebels’ pleas to join Russia and repeated calls from Russian nationalists for Putin to send troops into Ukraine. NATO reported Thursday, however, that Russia was resuming a military buildup at the Ukrainian border.

Vladislav Seleznev, spokesman for Ukrainian forces in the east, said in addition to the deaths, 30 troops were injured in fighting near the village of Yampil in the Donetsk region.

An Associated Press reporter saw pro-Russia fighters moving in a column with two tanks and three armored personnel carriers near the town of Yanakiyeve in the direction of Horlivka in the separatist Donetsk region. The tanks flew small flags of a pro-Russia militia but otherwise had no markings. The fighters declined to say what they were doing.

At the border crossing near Izvaryne in the separatist Luhansk region, an AP reporter saw a line of 100 or more cars waiting for hours to cross from Ukraine into Russia as people fled the unrest. Some of the cars were piled high with possessions. The United Nations said earlier this week that 34,000 people had been displaced by the fighting.

One car had a sign saying “children” on the windshield. A man named Sergei, who would not give his last name for fear of retaliation, said “people are simply leaving everything and trying to escape the war.”

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