05 сентября 2014 13:16

Poroshenko says Ukraine ceasefire plan to be signed Friday


 Ukraine said Thursday it was poised to strike a Kremlin-backed ceasefire deal with rebel leaders after five months of conflict that has sent East-West tensions soaring, AFP reports.

 Ukraine said Thursday it was poised to strike a Kremlin-backed ceasefire deal with rebel leaders after five months of conflict that has sent East-West tensions soaring, AFP reports.

President Petro Poroshenko said the peace blueprint would be signed on Friday at a meeting in Minsk brokered by the pan-European security body the OSCE.

The leaders of two pro-Russian rebel strongholds in Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland also said they were ready to issue orders to silence the guns once a deal is done.

The push for peace follows a dramatic escalation of the crisis after NATO reported that Russia had secretly sent in troops and heavy weapons to support the insurgents in a new counter-offensive that has seen Kiev's troops lose control of large areas of the southeast.

But in a sign of the potential hurdles an agreement could face, AFP correspondents reported heavy artillery fire on the outskirts of the key southeastern port city of Mariupol as Ukrainian forces battled separatist gunmen.

Poroshenko said on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Wales that a document would be signed in Minsk "providing for the gradual introduction of the Ukrainian peace plan".

"It is very important that the first element provides for a ceasefire," he said.

Friday's meeting will be the second this week in Minsk between representatives of Kiev, Moscow, the separatists and the OSCE.

The heads of the self-declared "People's Republics" of Donetsk and Lugansk also issued a joint statement saying they were "ready to issue a ceasefire order if an agreement is reached and the Ukrainian representatives sign the political settlement plan".

  Seven-point blueprint 

Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced on Wednesday a seven-point blueprint aimed at halting the fighting after telephone talks with Poroshenko.

The so-called action plan outlines a series of steps including an end to "offensive operations" in the east, an exchange of prisoners and the opening of humanitarian corridors.

Analysts had said the timing of Putin's announcement appeared designed to head off possible new Western retaliatory measures over Russia's actions in the former Soviet state, which has sent alarm bells ringing in Europe and the United States.

Moscow -- increasingly isolated on the international stage and its economy hard hit by Western sanctions -- has vehemently denied any direct involvement in the conflict.

But it has accused Kiev's pro-Western leaders of persecuting Russian speakers in the east who still view themselves as part of a broader post-Soviet country with its roots in Moscow.

On Thursday Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also accused Washington of undermining peace efforts, in comments apparently linked to plans by Kiev to launch a renewed bid for membership of NATO, taking it further outside Moscow's orbit.

And in a move likely to further infuriate the Kremlin, Poroshenko said NATO leaders would back stronger military support for Kiev at their summit in Wales.

Since the separatists took up arms against Kiev in April just weeks after Moscow's annexation of Crimea, the conflict has inflicted an increasingly heavy toll, with around 2,600 people dead and as many as one million displaced, according to the United Nations.

A unilateral ceasefire declared by Poroshenko in June collapsed in a matter of days, and analysts have voiced caution about whether the latest truce plans would lead to a lasting peace.

After weeks of being besieged by Ukrainian forces, the rebels suddenly appeared to gain the upper hand, advancing south from Donetsk in what some saw as a Moscow-backed land grab to link Russia with annexed Crimea.

And the fighting was continuing on the ground on Thursday near Mariupol, an important industrial port on the Sea of Azov.

"We are resisting but it difficult with just guns against armoured vehicles," Sergei, a volunteer with a pro-Kiev battalion told AFP at a roadblock on the eastern side of the city.

A pro-Kiev official in Donetsk said Ukrainian forces had repelled a small rebel "reconnaisance mission" outside Mariupol and destroyed four tanks, but that the situation inside the city itself remained calm.

by Tanya WILLMER with Amelie HERENSTEIN in Mariupol

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