Poroshenko pledges autonomy for east Ukraine
President Petro Poroshenko pledged Wednesday to give separatist regions in eastern Ukraine more autonomy but said he would not allow the country to be ripped apart.
The pro-Western leader also announced that Russia had withdrawn most of the troops it allegedly sent across the border to back pro-Kremlin rebels, a move that could further ease tensions after the signing of a ceasefire deal last week.
His declaration came just as European Union envoys were gathering in Brussels to discuss a new wave of sanctions against Moscow over its role in the conflict in the former Soviet state.
Poroshenko said the ceasefire -- the first backed by both Kiev and Moscow since pro-Russian rebels launched an uprising against Kiev's rule in April -- had dramatically improved the security situation in the war-ravaged region.
"According to the latest information I received from our intelligence headquarters, 70 percent of Russia's forces have been removed," the presidency website quoted Poroshenko as telling his most powerful ministers.
Poroshenko said he intended to submit a bill to parliament next week granting parts of the east temporary self-rule but that it did not mean they were slipping out from under Kiev's control.
"Ukraine will not make any concessions on issues of its territorial integrity," he said.
"There is and can be no talk of federalisation or some estrangement (by the rebel-held regions)."
Russian President Vladimir Putin had long sought to turn Ukraine into a loose federation in which the eastern industrial rustbelt had the right to establish its own trade and diplomatic relations with Moscow.
And one rebel leader immediately vowed to seek outright independence in what promises to be arduous peace talks aimed at putting a permanent end to the five-month conflict that has killed more than 2,700 people and frayed East-West ties.
"We are not considering remaining part of Ukraine," Donetsk "deputy prime minister" Andrei Purgin told AFP.
- 'Situation radically changed' -
Poroshenko's announcement of a partial Russian troop withdrawal could affect the discussions of EU diplomats due to decide on Wednesday when to impose new economic sanctions against the Kremlin.
NATO had said last month that Russia had funnelled in at least 1,000 elite troops and heavy weaponry to support pro-Kremlin rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine, dramatically raising the stakes in the conflict.
"Before the ceasefire was announced, Ukraine was losing the lives of dozens of its heroes on a daily basis," he told the cabinet.
"The situation has radically changed at the front."
The US State Department said on Tuesday it agreed that the truce was "mostly holding".
However, one rebel fighter at a checkpoint outside the airport in Donetsk, the main rebel stronghold in the east, scoffed at the suggestions.
"Here's your ceasefire," said Dmitry, pointing to part of a rocket. "These little gifts arrived after the truce."
Some EU members -- wary of further economic reprisals that include a threat to cut off European airlines from crossing Russian airspace -- have insisted that the punitive steps be imposed only on the condition that they may be cancelled quickly if the truce deal holds.
The measures have been ratcheted up in both Brussels and Washington since the July downing of a Malaysian jet liner over rebel-held territory that claimed 298 lives and raised new concerns about Russia's alleged military support for the revolt.
A preliminary report released by Dutch investigators on Tuesday showed that the Boeing 777 was hit by numerous "high-energy objects".
Although the report did not apportion blame, it appears to back claims that MH17 was hit by a missile. Kiev and the United States charged that it was blown out of the sky by a Russian-supplied ground-to-air missile.
But Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Ukraine "bears full responsibility" for the MH17 crash.
- 'The response will come' -
Details of the new EU sanctions will only be available once they are listed in the EU Official Journal.
"Depending on the situation on the ground, the EU stands ready to review the agreed sanctions in whole or in part," European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said on Monday.
Diplomats say the measures are likely to target Russia's three largest state-held oil companies and several defence corporations.
The steps would prevent giants such as top oil producer Rosneft and the Russian tank maker Uralvagonzavod from taking out any credits on European capital markets for longer than 30 days.
The sanctions -- similar to those already imposed by the United States -- threaten to cripple the daily operations of Russia's biggest companies and deal a further setback to an economy whose annual growth is fast approaching zero.
The speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament said EU leaders must realise that Moscow would respond to the new sanctions swiftly and severely.
"As we have honestly warned our partners, the response will definitely come," State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin said.
© 2014 AFP