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Leery Ukraine, pro-Russia rebels eye troop pullback

29 september 2014, 13:40
0
©AFP
©AFP

 Ukraine waited Sunday to see if a Russian-backed truce lasted through the day before starting to withdraw forces from a frontline against pro-Moscow separatist rebels stretching across the war-torn east, AFP reports.

The military reported no casualties but there were more than a dozen overnight attacks by pro-Russian gunmen who refused to accept Kiev's decision to seek a closer alliance with the West.

National Security and Defence Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko said attempts to convince the militias to halt fire "are achieving certain progress".

He blamed the raids "on insubordinate groups" and not the rebel commanders or Russia.

The insurgency had resulted in five months of bloodshed that has killed 3,200 people and threatened the survival of the ex-Soviet state.

But retaliatory Western sanctions on Russia and the drain of ceaseless warfare on Ukraine's economy and morale brought the sides together for negotiations in early September that have since produced a broad truce and political settlement plan.

At its heart lies an agreement to establish a buffer zone 30 kilometres (18 miles) wide between rebel and government forces across the economically vital but shattered rustbelt nestled near Ukraine's Russian frontier.

The guerrillas would then be granted temporary control of land from which they, with alleged help from Russia, repelled Ukraine's outdated armed forces.

The ceasefire was meant to take effect last weekend as a prerequisite to any global deal. Yet low-scale clashes continued and the mooted pullback was not enforced.

A ray of hope glimmered Friday when top Russian and Ukrainian commanders gathered for the first time near the rebel stronghold Donetsk to pore over maps and set terms under which both sides could trust each other enough to order a retreat.

Russia's state media -- long viewed as the mouthpiece of the Kremlin -- portrayed the meeting as Kiev's first recognition of an actual international border being established across the industrialised Lugansk and Donetsk provinces.

Ukraine in turn stressed that the Russians promised to impress on the militias the need to respect the truce -- a rare recognition by Moscow of its sway over the separatists.

"We are going to convince (the rebels), use reason with them. That is the most important thing," the deputy commander of Russia's ground forces, Aleksander Lentsov, told Ukrainian television after the meeting.

The Ukrainian defence ministry said at least 24 hours of uninterrupted calm across the war zone could prompt a gradual withdrawal from the front on Sunday night.

But the self-proclaimed heads of the rebel bastions of Lugansk and Donetsk have remained conspicuously silent. The insurgency's political leaders were unable to force warlords to respect a ceasefire that Kiev revoked after just 10 days in June.

  Diplomatic warfare 

The prospects of calm returning to Ukrainian battlefields have been dimmed by Russia's refusal to soften its Cold War-style diplomatic standoff with the West over the geopolitical future of former Soviet holdings.

"Attempts to put pressure on Russia, to force it to renounce its values, the truth, and justice are completely futile," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a UN General Assembly meeting in New York on Saturday.

Lavrov accused his European and US counterparts of legalising a "criminal regime" in Kiev that he said was waging war on ethnic Russians after staging a violent overthrow of a Kremlin-backed leadership.

"The United States and the European Union supported a state coup in Ukraine, deciding to blindly justify any actions taken by the self-proclaimed authorities in Kiev," Lavrov said in prepared remarks.

Ukraine's worst crisis since its 1991 independence began with the ouster under the pressure of deadly street protests in February of an unpopular president who rejected a historic EU agreement in favour of a closer alliance with Moscow.

The Kremlin's subsequent annexation of Crimea and demands for decentralisation of power from Kiev helped encourage bands of militias to overthrow local governments across the east and invite Russian forces into the region.


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