European observers blast Ukrainian government for restricting free movement in war-torn east

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KIEV, Ukraine — Observers from a European security organization on Wednesday criticized the Ukrainian government for restricting freedom of movement for residents in the war-torn east and urged it to reconsider the permit system it has introduced for crossing the front line.

More than 6,100 people have been killed and 1.5 million displaced by the ongoing conflict between Russia-backed separatists and government troops.

The Kiev government in January introduced travel permits for people entering government-held territory to cross back into the rebel-held east in what they describe as a bid to prevent the spread of separatism to other regions in Ukraine. Many local residents who stayed in rebel-controlled areas view the system as punishing and say it isolates them even further from the rest of Ukraine.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in a report published on Wednesday lambasted the system for making it hard for residents to leave the war-torn areas or get access to humanitarian aid.

"Many features" of the system, according to the OSCE, "have significantly impaired the ability of civilians to leave the Donbass" region. The observers also voiced concern about how local residents often have to travel through areas susceptible to crossfire and shelling to obtain such a permit.

Associated Press reporters have observed an inconsistent application of the permit system, affecting local residents. Many have complained of getting stuck on the other side of the front-line waiting for their permits and not being allowed back once they have crossed into a government-controlled area. Others said checks at the crossings are arbitrary, often leading to residents with valid documents being turned down.

The OSCE, which said in the report that some civilians have to wait up to 50 days to receive their permit, urged the Ukrainian government to adjust the permit system in order to ensure that all civilians have a chance to travel safely and freely.

Ukrainian officials insist the permits are a necessary safety precaution for areas bordering rebel territory.

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