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Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have agreed to begin to pull back heavy weapons from the frontline, Russian General Alexander Lentsov, who is involved in implementing the truce, has said.
Gen. Alexander Lentsov said the pro-Russian rebels had signed the orders to complete the withdrawal over the next two weeks, starting from Sunday.
It is not clear whether the move will be reciprocated by Ukraine.
This comes as Ukraine and the separatists exchanged 191 prisoners, a key part of the Minsk ceasefire deal.
It was the first step carried out successfully under the terms of the February 12 agreements signed in Minsk, brokered by France and Germany.
The exchange came as Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was considering “serious sanctions” against Russia following breaches of the truce, and that a decision would be made in the coming days.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said sanctions would not help solve Ukraine’s crisis.
Meanwhile, thousands of Ukrainians – as well as a number of European leaders – are expected to take part in a “dignity march” in the capital Kiev on February 22, remembering the victims of sniper fire during protests last February.
Nearly 5,700 people have died since the fighting erupted last April Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, according to the UN.
This followed Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s southern Crimea peninsula.
Gen. Alexander Lentsov, a Russian member of the Joint Centre for Control and Co-operation (JCCC), said: “We have designated February 22 as <<D-Day>> as determined by the agreement from all sides. So from tomorrow [February 22] we will within the period of 14 days observe the agreement on the pullback of heavy weapons.”
He said the leaders of the self-proclaimed rebel Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics had already signed the orders.
“We hope for Kiev’s participation and help first and foremost,” the general added.
Petro Kanonik, a Ukrainian member of the JCCC, said Kiev had been informed of the rebel move, according to Ukraine’s Ukrainska Pravda website.
The pullout process had been due to start on February 17 and completed by March 3, but Gen. Alexander Lentsov said it would now take until March 7.
Ukraine and rebel forces accuse each other of multiple breaches of the truce, and there were reports of violations around Donetsk and the port city of Mariupol on February 21.
Yesterday, Ukraine’s military and the rebels completed the first exchange of prisoners after the ceasefire. A total of 139 Ukrainian soldiers were freed and 52 rebels.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweeted the news of the prisoner exchange, which took place near the front line town of Zholobok.
Some of the government soldiers were wounded and walking on crutches.
Petro Poroshenko originally said 140 soldiers would be freed, and Ukrainian officials said one more soldier would be released in the coming days.
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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called for the deployment of UN peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine.
Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin has denounced the Ukraine’s call as a destructive move.
The Ukrainian president’s call “raises suspicions that he wants to destroy the Minsk accords”, Vitaly Churkin said.
The Minsk ceasefire deal was reached a week ago but fighting round the strategic town of Debaltseve saw the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops there.
Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine also criticized the proposal.
Vitaly Churkin accused President Petro Poroshenko of seeking a new scheme instead of doing what he had signed up to.
“If one proposes new schemes right away, the question arises whether [the accords] will be respected,” he said.
The leadership of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic described the call for peacekeepers as a violation of the Minsk accords.
The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France, the four parties to the Minsk accords, held further talks over the phone on February 19.
The French presidency said the ceasefire breaches were denounced and the leaders called for “the implementation of the full package of measures agreed in Minsk” including a full ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and the release of prisoners.
Petro Poroshenko called for UN-mandated peacekeepers to enforce the ceasefire after fighting continued following the rebel advance on Debaltseve.
A police mission by the European Union would be the best format for a peacekeeping operation, Petro Poroshenko said on his website.
It would help guarantee security “in a situation where the promise of peace is not being kept”, he told an emergency meeting of Ukraine’s national security and defense council.
Nearly 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers withdrew from Debaltseve on February 18.
Petro Poroshenko said the withdrawal had been organized, but that at least six soldiers were killed and more than 100 wounded.
Earlier, a senior Ukrainian military official said 22 Ukrainian soldiers had died in Debaltseve since the ceasefire came into effect on February 15. Rebel claims of a much higher figure have been dismissed by the government.
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President Petro Poroshenko says the Ukrainian troops are making an “organized” withdrawal from the embattled town of Debaltseve.
Petro Poroshenko said 80% of Ukraine’s forces had left on Wednesday morning, February 18, with more to follow.
Fighting has raged over the transport hub, with pro-Russian rebels seizing control of most areas, despite a ceasefire deal.
Russia’s foreign minister said Ukrainian forces had been encircled and were forced to battle their way out.
“I’m reckoning that common sense will prevail,” said Sergei Lavrov as he urged the rebels to provide troops who surrendered with food and clothes.
Earlier, Vice-President Joe Biden accused Russia of violating the accord, agreed in Minsk last week.
Sergei Lavrov told reporters that the rebel attack in Debaltseve did not violate the ceasefire agreement, because the town was part of the rebel-held area at the time the peace deal was signed.
Eyewitnesses saw dozens of tanks and columns of weary Ukrainian troops retreating from Debaltseve on February 18.
“This morning the Ukrainian armed forces together with the National Guard completed an operation for a planned and organized withdrawal from Debaltseve,” the Ukrainian president said in a statement before travelling to the frontline in the east.
“As of now we can say that 80% of our units have left,” he said.
“We are expecting another two columns [to leave].”
The withdrawal comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Ukraine’s troops in Debaltseve to surrender.
International observers monitoring the truce have been unable to enter the town.
It has become a key prize for rebels and government forces, as it sits on a strategic railway line linking rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk.
Most of its 25,000 population has been evacuated but about 7,000 civilians are still believed trapped by the fighting.
The ceasefire, which came into effect on February 15, has been broadly observed elsewhere.
Rebel leaders in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic said on February 18 they had begun to withdraw heavy weaponry from the parts of the frontline where the ceasefire was holding.
The withdrawal was due to start no later than the second day after the truce came into effect and be completed within two weeks, creating buffer zones 30-85 miles wide.
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Vladimir Putin has urged the Ukrainian government to allow its troops to surrender to rebels in the strategic town of Debaltseve.
The Russian president also said he hoped the rebels would let any captured troops return to their families.
Fierce fighting raged throughout Tuesday in Debaltseve despite a ceasefire deal signed last week, with rebels saying they now controlled most areas.
The UN Security Council called for an immediate end to hostilities.
On Tuesday evening a resolution drafted by Russia calling on all sides to respect the deal, signed in the Belarusian capital Minsk last week, was adopted unanimously by the council.
International observers monitoring the truce have been unable to enter Debaltseve.
Debaltseve has become a key prize for rebels and government forces, as it sits on a strategic railway line linking rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described rebel attempts to take the town as a “cynical attack” on the ceasefire.
“Today the world must stop the aggressor,” Petro Poroshenko said in statement posted on his website following a phone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“I call on the permanent members of the UN Security Council to prevent further violation of fundamental principles and rules of the UN and the unleashing of a full-scale war in the very centre of Europe,” he said.
Speaking on a visit to Hungary, President Vladimir Putin said he hoped the ceasefire agreements would be observed by both sides.
Vladimir Putin said there had been a “significant reduction” in the intensity of combat since the truce came into effect over the weekend.
He said the conflict could not be solved by military means.
“I hope that the Ukrainian authorities are not going to prevent the Ukrainian soldiers from laying down their weapons,” he said.
“If they aren’t capable of taking that decision themselves and giving that order, then [I hope] that they won’t prosecute people who want to save their lives and the lives of others.”
Vladimir Putin added that the fighting in Debaltseve was “understandable and predictable”.
He said he had warned participants in the Minsk talks that – ceasefire or no ceasefire – encircled government troops would try to break free and the rebels would try to prevent this.
Meanwhile, sources in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) said Debaltseve police station and railway station had been taken, and at least 80% of the city was under rebel control.
According to later reports, the city’s military HQ – where many government troops are based – has also been surrounded.
The rebels said that up to 300 Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve had surrendered, and Russian TV showed footage of what it said were 72 captured soldiers.
Ukraine said a group had been taken prisoner after an ambush but denied large-scale surrenders.
The Ukrainian military said there was intense fighting in the streets and confirmed that the rebels were in control of parts of the city.
Although Debaltseve has suffered weeks of artillery exchanges, correspondents say this is the first fierce fighting inside the town.
Most of its 25,000 population have been evacuated but about 7,000 civilians are still believed trapped by the fighting, according to Amnesty International.
The ceasefire, which came into effect on February 15, has been broadly observed but separatists insist the agreement does not apply in Debaltseve because they have the town almost surrounded.
Both sides have also failed to pull back heavy weapons from the front line.
The withdrawal was due to start no later than the second day after the truce came into effect and be completed within two weeks, creating buffer zones 30-85 miles wide.
Officials say more than 5,400 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine in April 2014, but the UN believes the actual death toll to be much higher.
Ukraine’s pro-Western government says Russia is supporting the separatists with troops and weapons, but the Kremlin has consistently denied this.
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The ceasefire between Ukrainian military and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine agreed in Belarusian capital Minsk has come into effect, though sporadic shelling was reported in some places.
Both sides ordered their forces to stop fighting from midnight local time.
However, they later traded accusations over reported artillery and mortar fire.
Fighting had raged near the besieged strategic town Debaltseve just hours before the truce, agreed by leaders this week in Minsk, was due to kick in.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel brokered the agreement on February 12 after marathon talks in the Belarusian capital.
Officials say more than 5,400 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine in April, but the UN believes the actual death toll to be much higher.
The fighting followed the annexation by Russia of Ukraine’s southern Crimea peninsula.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of sending troops and weapons to help the separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions – a claim the Kremlin vehemently denies.
Ukrainian military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov said army positions in the town of Popasna and near the villages of Zolote and Chernukhyno were fired on after the ceasefire.
Meanwhile, senior rebel defense official Eduard Basurin said Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve fired on rebels positions, prompting them to return fire.
Just before midnight, President Petro Poroshenko ordered the commander of what Ukraine describes as its “anti-terror operation” to observe the ceasefire.
In a national broadcast from the military headquarters in Kiev, Petro Poroshenko expressed hopes that “perhaps the last chance [for peace] won’t be lost”, adding that agreements “must be honored, and we are expecting that the ceasefire deal will be adhered to”.
The president said there was still “alarm” over the situation around Debaltseve, a transport hub where several thousand Ukrainian troops have been besieged by the separatists for days.
The rebels say they have completely cut off supply routes to Debaltseve, encircling the town. Ukraine denies the claim.
Donetsk rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko said earlier on Saturday that he considered the Debaltseve area was not covered by the agreed ceasefire.
European leaders have warned Russia that it could face additional sanctions if the 13-point ceasefire agreement is not respected.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande have reached an agreement aimed at ending the fighting in Ukraine following marathon talks in Minsk, Belarus.
The leaders announced that a ceasefire would begin on February 15.
The deal also includes weapon withdrawals and prisoner exchanges, but key issues remain to be settled.
The pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have signed the agreement. Thousands of people have died in almost a year of fighting in the region.
The deal is very similar to a ceasefire agreed in September 2014, which unraveled very quickly.
Key unresolved issues include the status of Debaltseve, a government-held town surrounded by rebels, where fighting is still going on.
Further talks will also be held on self-rule in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk separatist regions.
President Francois Hollande said he and Chancellor Angela Merkel would ask their European Union partners to support the deal at a summit in Brussels on Thursday.
Angela Merkel said there was now a “glimmer of hope” but big hurdles remained, while Francois Hollande said “the coming hours will be decisive”.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said European leaders in Brussels would be discussing ways to “help and sustain the agreement”, but she ruled out the threat of fresh sanctions on Russia.
“I think today the issue is not going to be discussion of further sanctions… but rather positive ways the EU can contribute to make this first step just one of many others,” she told reporters in Brussels.
The US said the deal was a “significant step” but expressed concern over reports of continued fighting in eastern Ukraine, saying it was “inconsistent with the spirit of the accord”.
Last week, the US refused to rule out supplying “lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine if diplomacy failed, but Russia says that would worsen the crisis.
Speaking after the talks ended, Vladimir Putin told Russian television: “It wasn’t the best night for me, but it’s a good morning.”
Petro Poroshenko – who had accused Russia of making “unacceptable” demands – said that “despite tension and pressure” Ukraine had not succumbed to “ultimatums”.
Russia rejects accusations by Ukraine and Western powers that it is supplying weapons and personnel to the rebels – who are seeking independence for the areas they control.
The separatists gave the agreement a cautious welcome.
In Luhansk, rebel leader Igor Plotnitskiy said: “We hope that thanks to our efforts today, Ukraine will change and stop firing at civilians, hospitals and socially important facilities.”
Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko said Kiev would be to blame if the ceasefire collapsed and warned that there would “be no meetings and no new agreements”.
More than 5,400 people have been killed since the conflict began. There has been a dramatic rise in casualties in recent days, with 263 civilians killed in populated areas between January 31 and February 5.
Minsk agreement includes:
- Ceasefire to begin at 00:01 local time on February 15
- Heavy weapons to be withdrawn, beginning on February 16 and completed in two weeks
- All prisoners to be released; amnesty for those involved in fighting
- Withdrawal of all foreign troops and weapons from Ukrainian territory. Disarmament of all illegal groups
- Ukraine to allow resumption of normal life in rebel areas, by lifting restrictions
- Constitutional reform to enable decentralization for rebel regions by the end of 2015
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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko have announced a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine starting with February 15.
“We have managed to agree on the main issues,” Vladimir Putin said after marathon talks with Petro Poroshenko, as well German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in Minsk, Belarus.
President Francois Hollande said it was a “serious deal” but not everything had been agreed.
Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting in the east of Ukraine.
The meeting in Belarus – which began on February 11 – was focused on securing a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and creating a demilitarized zone in Eastern Ukraine.
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Russia has called for immediate Ukraine ceasefire talks in the Belarusian capital Minsk.
Ukrainian troops “must leave positions from which they can harm the civilian population”, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Ukrainian and Russian officials are due to hold talks with separatist rebels and international monitors in Minsk on September 1.
Some 2,600 people have died in eastern Ukraine since fighting began in April.
The conflict broke out after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s southern Crimea peninsula in March.
Last week’s first direct talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, did not lead to any major breakthrough.
The separatists have been gaining ground on Ukrainian forces in recent days, in both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and further south around the port of Mariupol.
First direct talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, did not lead to any major breakthrough (photo Reuters)
Ukrainian military spokesman Leonid Matyukhin said troops were battling a Russian tank division in the city of Luhansk.
Overnight reports said separatists had taken control of the airport there.
On Monday, September 1, Sergei Lavrov said he was counting on the Minsk talks to focus on “agreeing an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.
He added that there would be “no military intervention” from Russia in Ukraine.
“We are for an exclusively peaceful resolution of that most serious crisis, that tragedy,” Sergei Lavrov told students in Moscow.
The meeting of the so-called Contact Group in Minsk will include representatives from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
On the eve of the talks, President Vladimir Putin said the issues of “statehood” for eastern Ukraine needed to be discussed to ensure the interests of local people were “definitely upheld”.
“Russia cannot stand aside when people are being shot at almost at point blank,” he said, describing the rebels’ actions as “the natural reaction of people who are defending their rights”.
Vladimir Putin’s comments came after the EU gave Russia a one-week ultimatum to reverse course in Ukraine or face more sanctions.
He dismissed the EU threat, accusing it of “backing a coup d’etat” in Ukraine.
The EU and US have already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on many senior Russian officials and separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine.