Ukraine Crisis: Rebels Agree On Weapon Pullout Date

ukraineRebels in Eastern Ukraine have agreed to begin to pull back heavy weapons from the front-line, a Russian general involved in implementing a truce says.

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 February15 agreements signed in the Belarusian capital, brokered by France and Germany.

The exchange came as US 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’s 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 Sunday, 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.

Gen Lentsov, a Russian member of the Joint Centre for Control and Co-operation (JCCC), said: “We have designated February 22 the “D-Day” as determined by the agreement from all sides. So from Sunday 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.

The pullout process had been due to start last Tuesday and completed by March 3, but Gen Lentsov said it would now be March7.

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 Saturday.

The rebels took the strategic transport hub of Debaltseve during the week in spite of the ceasefire, arguing the truce did not apply to the flashpoint town, forcing government troops to retreat.

Putin: Troops To Surrender As Ukraine Ceasefire Unravels

putinRussian President Vladimir Putin, told Kiev to let its soldiers surrender to pro-Russian rebels, who spurned a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and fought their way on Tuesday into the town of Debaltseve, encircling thousands of government troops.

A peace deal reached at all-night talks in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, last week had all but unravelled, with both sides failing to begin pulling back heavy guns as required after the rebels refused to halt their advance.

Putin, whom Western countries accused of directing the rebel assault with Russian soldiers and weapons, said Kiev should allow its soldiers to surrender to the advancing rebels.

“I hope that the responsible figures in the Ukrainian leadership will not hinder soldiers in the Ukrainian army from putting down their weapons,” Putin 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.”

He added that he hoped the rebels would allow the Ukrainians to return to their families, once they had surrendered the town.

The US on the other side, had accused Russia of violating the Minsk agreement on Ukraine, as the UN Security Council voted unanimously to approve the ceasefire deal.

Vice-President Joe Biden said “the costs to Russia will rise” if it continued to violate the accord.

Fighting is continuing around the strategic town of Debaltseve, with pro-Russian rebels saying they are in control of most areas.

Although, the Security Council unanimously approved a Russian-drafted resolution to endorse the ceasefire deal agreed in Minsk, last week, angry words were exchanged among ambassadors.

US Ambassador, Samantha Power, said she “wholeheartedly welcomes this agreement” but said that Russia had to prove its commitment to peace.

She said: “Stop arming the separatists. Stop sending hundreds of heavy weapons across the border in addition to your troops. Stop pretending you are not doing what you are doing.”

She added: “Russia signs agreements then does everything within its power to undermine them. Russia champions, the sovereignty of nations and then act as if a neighbour’s borders do not exist.”

Mrs Power said it was “ironic” Russia had drafted the resolution while “backing an all-out assault” in Ukraine.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, said “Since the very start of the crisis, Russia has actively called for a peaceful settlement through inclusive, transparent dialogue between all sides in the internal Ukrainian conflict.”

After speaking to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Mr Biden said he “strongly condemned the violation of the ceasefire by separatist forces acting in concert with Russian forces, in and around the town of Debaltseve”.

Ukraine Crisis: Sides Refuse To Withdraw Big Guns

ukraineUkraine Government and pro-Russian separatists said they would not carry out an agreement to pull back heavy guns in east Ukraine on Tuesday, pushing a shaky peace deal closer to collapse.

Fighting had eased in many areas since a ceasefire came into force on Sunday, but the rebels have refused to halt attacks on a town where Ukrainian forces are encircled.

Monitors from the OSCE security group were expected to try to reach the besieged town, Debaltseve, after Germany said it had agreed steps with the leaders of Russia and Ukraine to ensure the observers had “free access” in the east.

The German chancellor and Ukrainian President called on the Russian President to exercise his influence on the separatists to enforce the ceasefire.”

A call by Berlin for the withdrawal of heavy weaponry to start seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, though officials from Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE and the rebels were expected to discuss implementation of the peace deal by phone.

“We do not have the right (to stop fighting for Debaltseve). It’s even a moral thing. It’s internal territory,” Denis Pushilin, a senior separatist representative, said.

“We have to respond to fire, to work on destroying the enemy’s fighting positions.”

He said: “We are ready at any time, we have everything ready for a mutual withdrawal. We will not do anything unilaterally that would make our soldiers targets.”

Ukraine’s military said on Tuesday that five soldiers had been killed and 14 wounded in the past 24 hours.

Ukraine’s military reiterated that its forces could also not start withdrawing big weapons such as heavy artillery, as set out in the deal reached at marathon talks brokered by France and Germany in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, last Thursday.

The pull-back can happen only on fulfillment of the first point of the Minsk agreements of  the ceasefire.

“In the last 24 hours there had been firing so there is no ceasefire and no precondition for a pull-back of heavy weapons either.”

Ukraine Military Warns Of Danger Ahead Of Ceasefire

militaryThe Ukrainian military on Saturday said that there was a great danger in pro-Russian rebel offensive in east Ukraine ahead of a planned ceasefire, after a heavy fighting was recorded.

An agreement is due to come into effect from Sunday under a peace accord that also envisages a withdrawal of the heavy weapons responsible for casualties, in the conflict that broke out almost a year ago.

A military spokesman, Anatoly Stelmakh, said in a television interview, that “there has been no lull, moreover rebels continue attacks on Debaltseve,” a strategic transport hub northeast of Donetsk city, that has been the focus of some of the fiercest fighting in recent weeks.

The Ukrainian military separately said the situation remained tense in parts of the contested Luhansk region.

The Ukraine President, Petro Poroshenko, also accused Russia of “significantly increasing” its offensive despite the peace agreement reached in Minsk on Thursday.

Shelling was heard in the rebel-held city of Donetsk early on Saturday.

Reports say as the time gets closer for the ceasefire, fears are rising that it won’t be observed.

More than a dozen civilians are said to have died in shelling in eastern Ukraine on Friday.

It is unclear who was behind the shelling but both the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian rebels in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions accuse each other of the attack.

Speaking earlier, President Poroshenko said despite what had been agreed in Minsk, “Russia’s offensive operations have intensified”.

“We are still convinced that the Minsk achievements are in a big danger,” he added.

“Ahead of midnight, rebels are trying to complete tactically important plans to enlarge the territory under their control, primarily in the direction of Debaltseve,” spokesman Andriy Lysenko said

Ukraine Crisis: Fierce Fighting Despite Minsk Peace Deal

ukraineUkraine and Russian-backed rebels fought fiercely across the east of the country on Friday despite a new peace deal brokered by Germany and France.

The deal, sealed by the leaders of Germany and France on Friday after 16 hours of all-night talks in Minsk, capital of Belarus, with the Russian and Ukrainian presidents, was soon overshadowed by the clashes.

The fiercest battles were over control of the town of Debaltseve, a strategic town in between rebel-held areas where separatists used rockets and artillery to attack government forces holding the town.

A ceasefire is due to come into effect from Sunday under the agreement, which also envisages a withdrawal of the heavy weapons responsible for many of the 5,000 casualties in the conflict that broke out almost a year ago.

Shelling was reported in Donetsk and Luhansk – rebel bastions near the front line where the pro-Russian rebels face government forces.

Two people were killed and six wounded when a shell hit a cafe in the Kiev-controlled town of Shchastya near rebel-held Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

“The town’s heating system is broken, power lines are damaged as well as the water supply … So this is how a comprehensive ceasefire is prepared for,” the head of the Kiev-controlled administration, Hennadiy Moskal, said online.

The rebels accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the separatist stronghold of Donetsk and the town of Horlivka, where they said on their website that three children had been killed.

A Ukrainian military spokesman said 11 soldiers had been killed and 40 wounded in the past 24 hours. “The enemy continues to build up forces in the main areas of the armed conflict.”

“Rebels are repeatedly storming the strongholds and base camp of Ukrainian forces,” in and around Debaltseve as well as firing artillery, mortars and rockets, Lysenko said, stressing that government troops had held their positions.

The United States and Europe have threatened further sanctions against Moscow if the rebels seize more territory.