Ukraine warring sides announce start of small arms withdrawal

Agence France-Presse
Ukraine warring sides announce start of small arms withdrawal
The announcement comes after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko voiced cautious optimism over the future of a peace deal.

KIEV, Ukraine – Warring sides in Ukraine on Saturday, October 3, began withdrawing tanks and smaller weapons from a buffer zone in the war-torn east a day after the leaders of France and Germany met Vladimir Putin for peace talks.

The announcement of the beginning of the small-weapons withdrawal came after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko voiced cautious optimism over the future of a peace deal but said the war was not over. 

“There is a truce,” he told reporters after more than four hours of talks in Paris.

“The war will be over when the last patch of Ukrainian land is liberated. As long as there is occupied territory the war is not over.”

Both government forces and rebels from the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic said Saturday that the withdrawal of tanks and smaller weapons would begin imminently.

But their fellow rebels from the neighboring Donetsk People’s Republic said they would follow suit after October 18 if the ceasefire holds.

“This work has started this morning,” Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters, adding that the actual pullback would begin Saturday afternoon.

“We expect the same from the militants who rushed to say that some tank column had already begun moving. But no one knows where it is heading.”

Tanks pulled back in Lugansk

Moscow-backed rebels and government forces had this week agreed to withdraw tanks as well as light weapons from a buffer zone beginning Saturday to shore up the brittle ceasefire.

The pullback builds on a Western-backed peace deal agreed in the Belarussian capital Minsk in February.

Rebels from the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic announced earlier Saturday that they had already started pulling back their tanks.

“People’s militia of the Lugansk People’s Republic has begun a withdrawal of tanks from the line of contact in accordance with the Minsk deal,” said the official news agency of the rebel region.

The deal will take more than 40 days to implement and see each side’s mortar shells and rockets with a calibre of less than 100 millimeters moved 15 kilometers (nine miles) away from the so-called line of contact.

Rebels from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said they would wait however to see if the ceasefire holds.

“This will be after the 18th on condition that everything is quiet,” a senior separatist commander, Eduard Basurin, told local reporters.

“It is up to the OSCE, which is a guarantor, to determine the time.”

Sticking points remain

Ukraine’s Poroshenko met on Friday with the leaders of Russia, France, and Germany in Paris in the latest push to end a conflict that has claimed more than 8,000 lives since April 2014.

Over the past few weeks, fighting has all but stopped but even if small weapons are withdrawn, a number of other sticking points remain, including first and foremost rival elections planned by Kiev and the rebel regions.

After the Paris French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the leaders had agreed that rebel votes planned on October 18 and November 1 could not go ahead.

“We don’t want elections to take place in eastern Ukraine that do not respect the Minsk deal,” Hollande said.

Rebels and Moscow did not immediately comment on the announcement, however.

The rebels, who seek greater autonomy within a united Ukraine, want to hold local elections on their own terms, which include barring all pro-Kiev candidates and holding the polls on separate days to those planned in the rest of Ukraine.

In a blow to Poroshenko, Hollande also called for “amnesty” and “immunity” for all election candidates, including the rebels.

Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of covertly supporting the rebels with troops and weapons, a claim Moscow denies.

Putin has over the past days shifted Western attention away from the Ukraine conflict by ramping up Moscow’s military presence in war-torn Syria, an ally since Soviet times, and launching air strikes against Islamic State militants. – Oleksandr Savochenko, AFP/

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