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.

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.

Putin Announces Ceasefire Deal With Ukraine

Ukraine Presidentukraine, Vladimir Putin, has announced ceasefire after meeting all night in Belarus with leaders of Russia, France and Germany, to secure a peace deal. The leaders of Russia and Ukraine have announced that ceasefire will begin in Eastern Ukraine on 15 February.

After marathon talks with leaders of Ukraine, France and Germany, Russia President, Vladimir Putin said “We have managed to agree on the main issues.”

French President, Francois Hollande also said it was a “serious deal” but not everything had been agreed.

The meeting in Belarus – which began on Wednesday – was focused on securing a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and creating a demilitarized zone in Eastern Ukraine.

Before the meeting started, the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had said that achieving a ceasefire was significant. Thousands of people have been killed and indisposed in the fighting.

Russia has been accused of arming and reinforcing pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine, a claim That was denied.  The talks are set to focus on securing a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and creating a demilitarized zone.

The Ukrainian and Russian presidents barely looked at each other when they were forced to shake hands. At a family photo of the leaders, not a single person was smiling. There was even an image of Vladimir Putin inside the negotiations snapping a pencil in two.

Heavy shelling was reported in the rebel-held city of Luhansk; by a freelance reporter, Pierre Sautreuil, (in French) that a rebel military base seemed to be the target of one bombardment in the south-east of the city.

Mr Poroshenko had earlier said that the situation threatened to spin “out of control” if the parties did not agree to ceasefire.

The Ukrainian warned that his government was prepared to impose martial law, adding that the Minsk summit was one of the final chances to bring about an unconditional ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons.

US President Barack Obama has refused to rule out supplying “lethal defensive weapons” to Kiev if diplomacy fails, but Russia says that would worsen the crisis.

Ukraine Crisis: Refugee Convoy Hit by Rockets And Mortars

ukraineVehicles carrying refugees from the Luhansk area of Eastern Ukraine were hit by rockets and mortar, killing scores of people.

Ukraine has blamed pro-Russian rebels but they have denied carrying out the attack, near the village of Novosvitlivka.

Another military spokesman said that people had been burned alive inside their vehicles but a spokesman for the rebel self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”, Andrei Purgin, denied that rebel forces had attacked the convoy.

Ukrainian forces have moved into the outskirts of rebel-held Luhansk where basic supplies are running out.

There has been sustained artillery shelling of the city of Luhansk, where civilians are suffering chronic shortages of water, food and electricity.

Hundreds of civilians are fleeing the city every day as Ukrainian forces edge into Luhansk.

Ukrainian Government Losing Grips On Restive East

A pro-Russian armed man stands guard at a barricade near the state security service building in SlavianskPro-Moscow separatists seized government offices in more Ukrainian towns on Wednesday.

The development is a further sign that authorities in Kiev are losing control of the country’s eastern industrial heartland bordering Russia.

Gunmen who turned up at dawn took control of official buildings in Horlivka, a town of almost 300,000 people, said a Reuters photographer.

The heavily armed men wore the same military uniforms without insignia as other unidentified “green men” who have joined pro-Russian protesters with clubs and chains in seizing control of towns across Ukraine’s Donbass coal and steel belt.

Some 30 pro-Russian separatists also seized a city council building in Alchevsk, further east in Luhansk region, Interfax-Ukraine news agency said.

They took down the Ukrainian flag and flew a city banner before allowing workers to leave.

Attempts to contain the insurgency by the government in Kiev have proved largely unsuccessful, with security forces repeatedly outmanoeuvred by the separatists. The West and the new Ukrainian government accuse Russia of being behind the unrest, a charge Moscow denies.

Daniel Baer, the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, a European security watchdog which has monitors in the region, told reporters in Vienna: “I think it’s very clear that what is happening would not be happening without Russian involvement.”

A police official in Donetsk, the provincial capital where separatists have declared a “People’s Republic of Donetsk”, said separatists were also in control of the Horlivka police station, having seized the regional police headquarters earlier in April.

The murder of a town councillor from Horlivka, who opposed the separatists, was cited by Kiev last week among reasons for launching new efforts to regain control of the region.

Wednesday’s takeovers followed the fall of the main government buildings on Tuesday further east in Luhansk, capital of Ukraine’s easternmost province, driving home just how far control over the densely populated region has slipped from the central government in Kiev.