SHYROKYNE, Ukraine – Pro-Russian fighters have withdrawn from a strategic frontline village, Ukraine’s military reported on Friday, July 3 although some troops doubted whether the surprise retreat and lull in fighting would last.
Lying just 10 kilometers (six miles) east of the Sea of Azov industrial port of Mariupol – the target of repeated rebel attacks – Shyrokyne has been one of the deadliest hotspots of the 15-month separatist conflict in the ex-Soviet state’s industrial east.
“The rebels withdrew to the east, leaving the settlement of Shyrokyne completely destroyed,” military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk told reporters in Kiev.
But separatists warned that “unilateral demilitarization” by their side may not be enough to establish a lasting peace.
A top official with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said his Ukrainian monitoring teams had also not found any pro-Russian fighters in the village, Interfax reported.
Western powers, Russia and the OSCE have repeatedly urged the two sides to respect a February truce deal that demanded the immediate withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front.
But mutual mistrust has prompted daily exchanges of fire and turned Shyrokyne into an important staging post for rebel attacks on Mariupol – a port city the insurgents had vowed to seize in January before claiming to have changed their mind.
Ukrainian soldiers manning positions in and around the devastated village expressed doubts about the significance of the militias’ withdrawal.
“This is just a pullback of one infantry unit – no more,” Sedoi, the nom de guerre adopted by the commander of the pro-Kiev forces in the village, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“It has absolutely no effect on the situation. The threat is still there because their tank and artillery forces remain very close to Shyrokyne and could always attack again,” he said.
The Ukrainian crisis has claimed more than 6,500 lives since breaking out in the wake of the February 2014 ouster in Kiev of a Russian-backed administration and its replacement by a strongly pro-European team.
‘Death to the enemy’
The insurgents’ retreat along the southern edge of the front comes in a week that has witnessed a marked de-escalation of fighting and drop in the number of daily reported deaths.
But diplomatic tensions between Moscow and Kiev remain high, with Russia on Friday accusing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of refusing to agree final peace terms with the separatist command.
The Western-backed Ukrainian leader irked both Moscow and the fighters by unveiling draft changes to the constitution that gave sweeping powers to the regions but critically failed to address the rebels’ main demands.
His amendments, which Poroshenko on Friday asked parliament to approve within the next two weeks, refuse to add to the constitution the semi-autonomous status demanded by militants who now control land roughly the size of Wales.
Rebel parts of the mostly Russian-speaking Lugansk and Donetsk regions would like to see their right to partial self-rule spelt out in constitutional amendments that would be enormously difficult to overturn.
But Poroshenko’s draft only makes reference to an existing piece of legislation that gives insurgency leaders partial right to administer the areas for an interim period once a set of preliminary conditions are met.
The separatists fear that the law could be revoked or suspended by Ukraine’s strongly pro-European parliament.
For his part, Poroshenko is trying to avoid losing credibility with more nationalist Ukrainians who backed the pro-European protests last year and remain a powerful voice in the crisis-torn country’s fractured political system.
About 2,000 pro-Kiev volunteer fighters and far-right group members rallied in the Ukrainian capital on Friday evening to demand the declaration of all-out war against the eastern gunmen.
Wearing balaclavas and burning tyres, some chanted “Death to the Enemy” and “Glory to Ukraine”. – Sergey Volskiy, AFP/Rappler.com