Ukraine, rebels give initial backing to small arms withdrawal
Kiev said on Wednesday it had struck an initial agreement with pro-Russian insurgents to withdraw smaller weapons from the buffer zone splitting eastern rebel lands from the rest of Ukraine.
International monitors said the two sides' February committment to pull back heavy weapons from the 500-kilometre (300-mile) line separating the forces was only observed laxly and led to more than 1,000 deaths.
But a new truce that went into effect on September 1 has been observed strictly and driven up hopes that fighting that has claimed at least 8,000 lives since early last year was finally approaching an end.
A spokeswoman representing Kiev said the new deal inked at talks chaired by the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in the Belarussian capital Minsk covered mortar shells and rockets with a calibre of less than 100 millimetres.
"This means that President Petro Poroshenko's dream has been brought to life," Kiev spokeswoman Dariia Olifer wrote on Facebook.
She said the elusive agreement was initialled late Tuesday by Poroshenko's personal envoy Leonid Kuchma -- a former Ukrainian president who still carries tremendous political clout -- and the representatives of Russia and the OSCE.
Rebel negotiators said the heads of the self-proclaimed "people's republics" of separatist Lugansk and Donetsk would sign the pact when they receive it later Wednesday.
"The moment (the rebel leaders) sign the deal, it will come into force," Donetsk negotiator Denis Pushilin told the local separatists' official news site.
News of the impending deal should add impetus to talks between Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin that will also include the leaders of Germany and France in Paris on Friday.
The warring sides still remain far apart over rebel plans to soon stage their own local elections that Kiev calls illegal.
Ukraine also insists in 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 by the same four leaders in February pushed back into next year.
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 calls all Russian fighters captured in the Ukrainian war zone either volunteers of off-duty servicemen.
The 17-month crisis has seen Moscow's relations with the West plunge to a post-Cold War low.
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 boost the standing to President Bashar al-Assad.
© 2015 AFP