Poroshenko reports Russian pullout, offers rebels autonomy
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Wednesday that Russia had withdrawn most of the troops it allegedly snuck across the border to bolster pro-Kremlin rebels, and vowed greater autonomy for the separatist east in order to sustain a fragile new truce.
The pro-Western leader's comments came just as EU envoys were gathering in Brussels to debate a new wave of sanctions aimed at punishing Russia for its perceived attempts to break up the ex-Soviet state.
Poroshenko said Friday's ceasefire -- the first backed by both Kiev and Moscow since the conflict erupted five months ago -- had dramatically improved security in the war-ravaged industrial rustbelt.
"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.
Moscow has always denied sending in any troops or weaponry across the border, and Russian President Vladimir Putin said the claims by NATO were aimed at "reviving" the Western military alliance.
- 'Territorial integrity' -
Poroshenko, who took office in May pledging to end the bloody pro-Russian insurrection -- also said he planned to submit a bill to parliament next week granting parts of the east temporary self-rule.
But he stressed this did not mean that the rebel-held territories were slipping out from under Kiev's control.
"Ukraine will not make any concessions on issues of its territorial integrity," he insisted.
The Kremlin has long sought to turn Ukraine into a loose federation in which the largely Russian-speaking east could establish its own trade and diplomatic relations with Moscow.
And one rebel leader immediately vowed to seek outright independence in what promise to be arduous peace talks aimed at putting a durable end to the conflict that has frayed East-West ties.
"We are not considering remaining part of Ukraine," Andrei Purgin, the deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told AFP.
Poroshenko said the Russian pullout raised hopes for the success of the peace plan drawn up to end fighting that has killed over 2,700 people and forced at least half a million from their homes.
However, both sides have reported sporadic violations and Kiev said the lives of at least seven Ukrainian servicemen and one civilian had been lost since Friday.
And one pro-Russian gunman outside the airport of the main rebel stronghold Donetsk openly scoffed at the idea of a truce.
"Here's your ceasefire," Dmitry said as he pointed to the tail of an exploded mortar round. "These little gifts arrived after the truce."
Poroshenko's announcements could affect the thinking of EU diplomats who are due to decide on Wednesday when to impose new economic sanctions against the Kremlin.
NATO said last month that Russia had funnelled in at least 1,000 elite troops and heavy weapons to support a rebel counter-surge that led to the quick surrender of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and dramatically reversed their earlier gains.
But Putin accused the US-led military bloc of making up the charges to support its decision to deploy a new force in eastern Europe and encroach on his country's western frontier.
"The crisis in Ukraine, which was basically provoked and created by some of our Western partners, is now being used to revive this military bloc (NATO)," Putin was quoted as saying by Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency.
- 'The response will come' -
Some EU members -- wary of further economic reprisals that include a threat to cut off European airlines from crossing Russian airspace -- have sought for the punitive steps be imposed only on the condition that they may be scaled back quickly if the peace deal holds.
Sanctions have been ratcheted up by both Brussels and Washington since the July downing of a Malaysian jet over rebel-held territory that claimed 298 lives and raised new concerns about Russia's alleged military support for the revolt.
A preliminary report by Dutch investigators apportions no blame over the crash but appeared to back claims that the plane was hit by a missile. Kiev and the United States believe it was blown out of the sky by a Russian-supplied and operated ground-to-air system.
Diplomats said the latest sanctions will restrict access to European capital markets for Russian state giants such as oil producer Rosneft and the tank maker Uralvagonzavod.
The measures -- similar to those already imposed by the United States -- would deal a further setback to an economy whose annual growth is fast approaching zero.
But Russia's lower house of parliament speaker Sergei Naryshkin warned starkly: "As we have honestly warned our partners, the response will definitely come."
© 2014 AFP