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As of Sunday, October 25, Ukraine will stop direct flights to Russia, as new sanctions initiated by Kiev come into effect.

Moscow first called Kiev’s ban on Russian airlines “madness”, then announced that it would mirror the move.

Ukraine now says flights will end at midnight on October 24, after last-minute crisis talks failed.

Up to 70,000 passengers a month will be affected.

The sanctions are intended to punish Russia for annexing Crimea and supporting armed rebels in eastern Ukraine. The fact that they have been introduced now, when a ceasefire is finally holding on the ground, shows how bitter relations remain.

Photo Reuters

Photo Reuters

Russia has accused Ukraine of shooting itself in the foot with the move, pointing out that most passengers are Ukrainian travelling to work in Russia, visiting relatives or in transit.

Two-thirds of all passengers travel on Russian airlines.

Russia’s transport minister has estimated that the loss in ticket sales to both countries will run to around $110 million a year.

The ban is already angering passengers from both countries.

Last-minute talks to find a compromise are under way – so far to no avail – and the chances of success look slim in this climate.

As of October 25, passengers will be forced to take longer, more expensive routes via third countries, or to brace themselves for a 13-hour trip by train.

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In an interview for Russian television, President Vladimir Putin has said war with neighboring Ukraine is “unlikely”.

Vladimir Putin also stressed his support for the Minsk agreement as the best way to stabilize eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine has said there is clear evidence Russia is helping the rebels in the east, something Russia denies.

Earlier, Ukraine’s military said rebel shelling had prevented them withdrawing heavy weapons from the front line.Vladimir Putin Ukraine war

In his interview, Vladimir Putin was asked if there was a real threat of war, given the situation in eastern Ukraine.

“I think that such an apocalyptic scenario is unlikely and I hope this will never happen,” he said.

Vladimir Putin said that if the Minsk agreement was implemented, eastern Ukraine would “gradually stabilize”.

“Europe is just as interested in that as Russia. No-one wants conflict on the edge of Europe, especially armed conflict,” he said.

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.Ukraine rebels ceasefire

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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Anti-Maidan protesters rally in Moscow to condemn the “coup” in neighboring Ukraine, a year after the downfall of its pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Russian state media heavily promoted the rally and march with the slogan “We won’t forget! We won’t forgive!”.

Ukraine’s protests ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

Russia has since annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and is accused of backing rebels in eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government, Western leaders and NATO say there is clear evidence that Russia is helping the rebels in eastern Ukraine with heavy weapons and soldiers. Independent experts echo that accusation. Moscow denies it, insisting that any Russians serving with the rebels are “volunteers”.

Shelling could be heard on Saturday morning in the city of Donetsk, the rebels’ main stronghold, further fraying the ceasefire which was meant to begin nearly one week ago in eastern Ukraine.

Nearly 5,700 people have died since the fighting erupted in April 2014 and some 1.5 million people have fled their homes, according to the UN.Anti Maidan rally Moscow 2015

The Moscow event is styled as an “anti-Maidan” march – a reference to Ukraine’s pro-EU protests that started on Kiev’s central Independence Square, widely known as the Maidan.

Groups of demonstrators gathered in central Moscow on Saturday under patriotic Russian banners.

One group of marchers in military fatigues could be seen with a placard which read “Maidan is an illness – we’re going to cure it!”

Another placard read “Maidan benefits the enemies of Russia!”

At least 10,000 people are expected to turn out with more than 100 public organizations mustering support, Russia’s NTV news channel reports.

The channel says it will air an interview with Viktor Yanukovych later in the day.

The anti-Yanukovych revolt was triggered by a sudden U-turn that ditched a wide-ranging pact with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia.

Since Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev, the new authorities in Ukraine have issued an arrest warrant for him over the “mass murder of peaceful citizens”.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia on February 20 of direct involvement in the sniper fire that killed dozens of protesters in Kiev on February 18-20 last year.

Petro Poroshenko was speaking just two days after his army retreated from the key town of Debaltseve, now in rebel hands.

Speaking at a commemorative gathering in Kiev, he said Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov had organized “groups of foreign snipers”. The president cited information he had received from Ukraine’s security services.

The Russian foreign ministry hit back at the claim, calling it “nonsense”.

The rebels took the strategic transport hub, despite the ceasefire signed on February 12, arguing that the truce did not apply to the flash-point town.

An intense rebel bombardment forced some 2,500 government troops to retreat from Debaltseve, and dozens of others surrendered.

Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a tough statement on February 20 warning that he would not allow any foreign state to gain the military advantage over Russia.

“No-one should have the illusion that they can gain military superiority over Russia, put any kind of pressure on it,” he said.

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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.Ukraine troops retreat from Debaltseve

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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  • 5,358 people killed and 12,235 wounded in eastern Ukraine
  • Fatalities include 298 people on board flight MH17 shot down on July 17, 2014
  • 224 civilians killed in three-week period leading up to February 1, 2015Ukraine war human cost 2015
  • 5.2 million people estimated to be living in conflict areas
  • 921,640 internally displaced people within Ukraine, including 136,216 children
  • 600,000 fled to neighboring countries of whom more than 400,000 have gone to Russia

Source: Figures from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, February 3, and UN report, January 21, 2015

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NATO is holding an emergency meeting over eastern Ukraine crisis, as the West steps up its accusations of direct Russian involvement in the conflict.

On August 28, NATO released satellite images it said showed Russian forces inside Ukraine and said more than 1,000 troops were operating there.

Russia denies sending troops to eastern Ukraine.

Pro-Russian rebels have gained ground recently. Nearly 2,600 people have been killed since April, the UN says.

Heavy fighting is continuing near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Rebel forces are trying to capture the city but Ukrainian government troops are digging in.

On August 28, the separatists seized the nearby town of Novoazovsk.

The advance has raised fears that the Kremlin might seek to create a land corridor between Russia and Crimea – a territory annexed by Russia from Ukraine in March.

Rebels are also reported to have surrounded government soldiers in several places further north, near the city of Donetsk.

Ukraine forces near the town of Ilovaysk say they are cut off and have been urgently asking for supplies and reinforcements.

NATO said that more than 1,000 Russian troops were operating inside Ukraine

NATO said that more than 1,000 Russian troops were operating inside Ukraine

Overnight, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on the rebels to open a “humanitarian corridor” to allow encircled Ukrainian troops to leave without unnecessary casualties, though he did not specify the location.

Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko later told Russian TV that his fighters had agreed to the request, on condition that the Ukrainians hand over heavy weapons and ammunition.

At least 2,593 people had been killed in the conflict between mid-April and August 27, the UN said in its latest report.

Human rights violations like abduction and torture were “committed primarily by the armed groups”, referring to the rebels, it said.

Separately, Human Rights Watch said in a report that the rebels were subjecting civilians to torture, degrading treatment and forced labor.

The reports of Russian troops fighting with rebels prompted renewed Western criticism of Moscow’s role in the conflict.

President Barack Obama blamed Russia for the escalation but stopped short of saying its troops had invaded Ukraine.

“There is no doubt that this is not a home-grown, indigenous uprising in eastern Ukraine,” he said.

“The separatists are trained by Russia, they are armed by Russia, they are funded by Russia.”

Barack Obama is due to discuss the crisis with European leaders at a NATO summit in the UK next week.

NATO released satellite images it said showed columns of Russian armed forces inside Ukrainian territory.

NATO Brigadier General Niko Tak said more than 1,000 Russian troops were operating inside Ukraine, both supporting the separatists and fighting on their side.

At Thursday’s emergency session of the UN Security Council, US Ambassador Samantha Power said Russia had “outright lied” about its role.

Her Russian counterpart Vitaly Churkin did not respond directly to Western accusations, but said: “There are Russian volunteers in eastern parts of Ukraine. No-one is hiding that.”

He hit out at the Ukrainian government, accusing it of “waging war against its own people”.

Vitaly Churkin also questioned the presence of Western advisers in Ukraine and asked where Ukrainian troops were getting their weapons from.

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