Ukraine, rebels agree full small weapons withdrawal
Kiev and pro-Russian insurgents struck a vital agreement on Wednesday to withdraw their entire arsenal of smaller weapons from the buffer zone splitting eastern rebel-held lands from the rest of Ukraine.
International monitors said the two sides' February commitment to pull back heavy weapons from the 500-kilometre (300-mile) line separating their forces was repeatedly violated, causing more than 1,000 deaths.
But a new truce that went into effect on September 1 has been strictly observed, raising hopes that the fighting in which more than 8,000 have died since early last year is finally approaching an end.
The long-debated small weapons pullback should also add impetus to high-stakes talks between President Petro Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Paris on Friday that will also include the leaders of Germany and France.
"The withdrawal of weapons...is an important step toward securing the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement.
"However, this is not enough," he added. "Many other points of the (February) agreement have still to be implemented. I hope both Kiev and Moscow are prepared to work toward this."
- 'Undisputed progress' -
Wednesday's pact will take 41 days to implement and see each sides' mortar shells and rockets with a calibre of less than 100 millimetres moved 15 kilometres (nine miles) away from the so-called "line of contact".
Both the rebel leaders and Kiev hailed the deal's signature and vowed to implement its terms.
"We view this is as a diplomatic victory," Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kiev.
"We are certain that this is another step toward establishing peace in the conflict zone."
Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko called the bitter enemies' ability to reach a compromise after nearly four months of acrimonious negotiations "undisputed progress".
The self-declared "People's Republic of Donetsk will unequivocally implement its part of the agreement," he said in a statement published on the separatists' official news site.
"However, the length of this negotiating process gives us reason to doubt the sincerity of the Ukrainian side," he added.
Ukraine's pro-Western leadership and the Moscow-allied insurgents still remain far apart over rebel plans to soon stage their own local elections that Kiev has branded as "fake".
The Ukrainian military also insists on grabbing back full control of its Russian border by the end of the year.
Moscow has said it would like the fulfilment of some terms agreed in February by the same four leaders meeting Friday in Paris pushed back into 2016.
Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russia of orchestrating and arming the rebel revolt in revenge for Kiev's decision last year to pull out of Moscow's orbit and hitch its future to the European Union.
Moscow denies the charges and says all Russian fighters captured in the Ukrainian war zone are either volunteers or off-duty servicemen.
The 17-month crisis has seen Moscow's relations with the West plunge to a post-Cold War low that analysts fear might take many years to repair.
But Putin has slowly shifted Western attention away from the conflict by boosting Russia's military presence in its war-torn ally Syria -- a step seen by Washington as an effort to bolster the regime of embattled President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia's defence ministry on Wednesday said it had conducted its first air strikes against Islamic State jihadists in two Syrian provinces.
The attacks mark Moscow's first engagement in a distant conflict since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
© 2015 AFP