Pro-Russian rebels demonstrate arms pull-back in Ukraine
Pro-Russian rebels on Wednesday took journalists to see a column of artillery pieces being moved, saying it proved that their forces were withdrawing heavy weapons in line with a truce.
However, there was no way of verifying whether the 14 122mm howitzers towed down a road in eastern Ukraine were really being withdrawn from the frontlines, as required under a new truce agreement signed earlier this month in Minsk, or were simply being shuffled around.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe, tasked with verifying implementation of the truce, said it could not confirm any arms withdrawal.
The head of the OSCE mission in Ukraine, Ertugrul Apakan, said in a statement that the warring sides "still have not provided" information needed to determine what, if any, arms withdrawals have occurred.
The information concerned "what heavy weapons they have; where these weapons are now, and which routes will be used to withdraw them; and where they will be located after they have been withdrawn".
"Without this information, the SMM (OSCE Special Monitoring Mission) cannot effectively verify the withdrawal of heavy weapons."
The pro-Russian insurgents took journalists to Obilne, a village 20 kilometres (12 miles) from their stronghold of Donetsk, to witness the movement of the artillery from the town of Starobecheve.
"We are applying the Minsk (truce) accords," a rebel commander going by the nickname "Khoroshi" told AFP.
"Yesterday (Tuesday), we pulled back Grad rocket launchers and the day before, tanks." He added: "We are following orders to pull back heavy weapons, but the Ukrainians aren't."
The commander refused to say where the weapons had been positioned or where they were going to be redeployed, invoking "military secrets".
He said only they had been on the frontline and they were being pulled back.
The OSCE says it has observed movements of weapons for the past five months but they did not in themselves constitute proof that the arms "are indeed withdrawn, and safely and securely stored".
Under the truce agreement signed this month in the Belarussian capital Minsk under European mediation, a "comprehensive" ceasefire was meant to come into effect on February 15, followed two days later by the start of the heavy weapons pull-back from the frontline.
The arms withdrawal is meant to create a buffer zone between 30 and 140 kilometres (19 to 87 miles), depending on the range and type of weapon.
© 2015 AFP