Ukraine, pro-Russia rebels agree truce

2014-12-04 21:28
Pro-Russian rebels stand guard at a polling station during supreme council and presidential elections in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. (Dmitry Lovetsky, AP)

Pro-Russian rebels stand guard at a polling station during supreme council and presidential elections in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. (Dmitry Lovetsky, AP)

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Kiev - Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels said on Thursday they had agreed to halt fire across the eastern war zone on 9 December under the terms of a Kremlin-brokered truce.

The unexpected announcement provides the latest glimmer of hope that Europe's worst conflict in decades was nearing an end after eight months of fighting that killed 4 300 people and shattered Moscow's relations with the West.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker underscored the Cold War-era chill now enveloping East-West relations by calling Russia a "strategic problem" for the 28-nation EU bloc.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the West of trying to force the "collapse and dismemberment" of his country through sanctions that are meant to punish the Kremlin's alleged support for the Ukrainian rebel cause.

Putin denies any link to the fighters and calls the economic restrictions a US-led pretext for toppling his increasingly nationalist regime.

The truce date disclosed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and two top separatist leaders was apparently agreed - but never disclosed - with the help of Russian and European envoys in the Belarussian capital Minsk on 5 September.

Poroshenko said Kiev had prepared "measures that should ensure the implementation of the Minsk Agreement concerning a Day of Silence that is due to begin on 9 December."

A source in Poroshenko's office said the president's statement meant Ukraine would begin withdrawing heavy weapons from the eastern frontline on 10 December 10 - as long as the separatists also observe the truce.

Broken promises

The parliament speaker of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic confirmed the latest ceasefire was part of the Minsk deal.

"The [Minsk] group, which included our and Ukrainian military officials, as well as OSCE and Russian mediators, agreed to halt fire on 9 December," Andrei Purgin told Russia's RIA Novosti state news agency.

But Purgin refused to say whether he thought this agreement would hold.

Several truce deals announced in the course of the war were broken within a matter of days by both rebels and Ukrainian soldiers who refused to listen to their political leaders.

The head of the neighbouring self-proclaimed Lugansk People's Republic said a ceasefire that would begin in mid-December was discussed at the Minsk negotiations.

But he also stressed that no written agreement on a specific date was ever reached.

"There was a verbal agreement [about a ceasefire] for around that date," Igor Plotnitsky told RIA Novosti. "But we do not have written confirmation of this yet."

There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin.

But Swiss president and Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) chair Didier Burkhalter said the date was a "very important" part of the peace plan his group helped put together in Minsk.

"Just be cautious. There are a number of different points that are not clear for the time being," Burkhalter stressed on the sidelines of an annual OSCE meeting in Switzerland.

The 5 September agreement was meant to establish a 30km buffer zone between the fighters and grant limited self-rule to the separatists.

Yet hostilities only intensified after the two rebel regions held their own leadership polls on 2 November that were denounced by both Kiev and the West.

Clashes rage on

The war was sparked by the February ouster of an unpopular Russian-backed president who refused to sign a landmark pact with the European Union that would have broken Kiev's long-standing dependence on Moscow.

The regime change appeared to catch Putin off guard.

Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea was soon overrun by pro-Russian soldiers in green unmarked uniforms and eventually annexed by Moscow.

Putin eventually admitted that his forces were involved in the Crimea operation - a fact that he had at first firmly denied.

Masked Russian-speaking gunmen seized government buildings across Ukraine's eastern rust belt just weeks later. An all out-war between them and Ukrainian forces broke out in mid-March and rages to this day.

A local truce that had been due to go into effect on Tuesday at the flashpoint international airport in Donetsk has been repeatedly broken by Grad rockets fired from rebel positions.

The Ukrainian military has also reported deadly clashes across the Lugansk region - the smaller of the pro-Russian provinces.

Kiev had said the rebels had agreed to end fighting across Lugansk by Friday. But separatist leaders have since said that no final agreement had yet been reached.

Read more on:    petro poroshenko  |  russia  |  ukraine

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