Ukraine troops prepare pullback as truce holds
A fragile truce between pro-Russian insurgents and Ukrainian forces appeared to consolidate Monday as clashes subsided and attention focused on the unresolved status of the separatist east.
Ukraine said it lost two soldiers in sporadic overnight raids by "armed gangs" on small towns surrounding the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk, but that nevertheless the military was preparing to pull back, as agreed under a new ceasefire deal.
The toll brings to 39 the number of Ukrainian troops and civilians killed since the warring sides signed a September 5 truce that NATO's top military commander warned at the weekend was holding "in name only".
The original ceasefire was reinforced Saturday by another Kremlin-backed deal setting out the terms of a mutual troop withdrawal and establishment of a 30-kilometre (20-mile) buffer zone along the frontline.
The nine-point memorandum signed in the Belarussian capital Minsk appears to have brought down the level of daily violence across the Russian-speaking industrial heartland and calmed security fears in the largest rebel-held cities and towns.
The Donetsk city government said the coal mining hub -- abandoned by nearly half its one million residents since hostilities first erupted in April -- experienced "no active combat" for the second day running.
But the Minsk memorandum put on the back burner all issues concerning the Lugansk and Donetsk regions' claim to independence and future ambition to come under full Russian control.
Lawmakers in Kiev last week backed President Petro Poroshenko's decision to hand the war-scarred territory three years of effective autonomy.
The pro-Western leader said this "special status" was the only way out of bloodshed that has killed nearly 3,000 people and threatened the country's survival in the face of what Kiev views as Russia's expansionist threat.
The war "cannot be won by military means alone," Poroshenko told the nation in an interview broadcast Sunday on the six main television networks.
But the self-rule law was pilloried by a vocal group of more nationalist politicians jockeying for position ahead of October 26 parliamentary elections that will hand lawmakers expanded powers at the expense of the president.
Their fear that Poroshenko had essentially admitted defeat to the Kremlin has been reinforced by rebels who claim they are no longer bound to Kiev and are free to govern their regions as independent states.
"Let them call this a 'special status' if they wish. But if the laws of Ukraine do not cover a particular region, that effectively recognises its independence -- only in more veiled terms," Lugansk separatist "prime minister" Igor Plotnitsky told an official rebel website.
- Army discontent -
Poroshenko said Sunday the conflict appeared to have eased, but warned that Ukraine would defend itself with renewed vigour should the peace plan collapse.
National Security and Defence Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Ukrainian forces would only begin withdrawing once the rebels lay down their weapons and Russian troops pull out.
"Everyone is staying put," Lysenko said Monday. "We are in the process of making preparations for a withdrawal."
Saturday's deal had given both sides 24 hours to pull back forces and let monitors from the OSCE pan-European security body begin monitoring compliance with the truce along both the front line and Russia's porous border with Ukraine.
But the Kremlin has issued clear signals that it is satisfied with ambiguities surrounding the long-term status of the rebel land and treating Poroshenko as leader who -- after stepping up the campaign after his May election -- had lost his will to fight.
Poroshenko "has started to realise he does not need a war to the bitter end -- in other words, until there are no more Ukrainians left standing," Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov told the Rossiyskaya Gazeta government daily.
Analysts warned that Poroshenko's vow to call off the truce in case of a spike in rebel activity had failed to convince many soldiers who had lost their comrades in battle and now felt betrayed by Kiev.
"Our troops view the ceasefire as a concession to the separatists," independent Ukrainian military analyst Sergiy Zgurec said.
"This is causing discontent in the military's rank and file," he said.
© 2014 AFP