Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian militias were due yesterday to pull back their troops from a demilitarized zone created under a new peace plan agreed in marathon overnight talks.
A nine-point agreement thrashed out in the early hours yesterday in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, also requires the withdrawal of all “mercenaries” from the conflict zone and an immediate end to hostilities.
However, Russia appeared ready to keep up the pressure on its Westward-leaning neighbor by sending in a new 30-truck convoy it said was carrying aid for the rebel-held city of Donetsk, but that Ukraine never approved.
Former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma — who is representing Kiev in the stuttering efforts to resolve the five-month conflict — said the agreement rested on the creation of a 30km buffer zone.
Forces from both sides are required to retreat 15km from current frontlines within 24 hours of the signing of the accord and allow monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe into the area to make sure the truce holds.
The areas under rebel control would be left open to their administration under a temporary self-rule plan adopted by lawmakers in Kiev on Tuesday.
The Minsk pact — also signed by Moscow’s ambassador to Kiev and the self-proclaimed “prime ministers” of the rebel-run regions of Donetsk and Lugansk — aims to shore up a ceasefire deal agreed two weeks ago.
The agreement crucially requires both sides to immediately withdraw “foreign mercenaries” from the conflict zone in industrial eastern Ukraine.
Kiev and Western allies accuse Russia of clandestinely slipping at least 1,000 paratroopers into eastern Ukraine to help the guerrillas mount a surprise counteroffensive late last month.
The Kremlin denies ordering soldiers into Ukraine. However, Moscow’s Kiev envoy Mikhail Zurabov told Russian media after the signing of the Minsk deal that both sides appeared to have hired foreign mercenaries.
The sides agreed to leave the most divisive political issues for future negotiation in order to get the terms of the truce worked out first.
Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko said that the explosive question of the status of rebel-held Donetsk and Lugansk was not discussed in Minsk by mutual consent.
“We each have our own understanding of [Kiev’s] law on special status,” Russian media quoted Zakharchenko as saying.
“These are issues for future negotiations that will last another year,” he added.
The elusive ultimate goal is to find a lasting solution to a conflict that has claimed nearly 3,000 lives and stoked Western alarm about Russia’s territorial ambitions.
The talks came in the wake of a peace overture by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that included a limited self-rule offer for separatist-controled areas in the east and an amnesty for all fighters.
The ceasefire has helped calm the worst fighting, but continues to be regularly broken around Donetsk — the scene of almost daily shelling on the city’s outskirts — and other disputed parts of the Russian-speaking industrial heartland.
Rebel representatives in the city of nearly 1 million — now with neighborhoods abandoned by families devastated by constant shelling and food shortages — said they had received a Russian humanitarian convoy overnight.
The press service of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said the volume of aid “was very large,” but provided few other details.
Ukraine was still set to receive an important boost from the 28-member NATO military alliance when its defense chiefs gathered yesterday in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius for a three-day meeting.
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