Ukraine’s new Western-backed president on Friday declared a week-long unilateral ceasefire and unveiled a sweeping plan for curbing a pro-Russian insurgency that killed 13 more soldiers in fierce clashes in the eastern rustbelt.
“Today, on June 20, the ceasefire should begin. It will last through June 27,” Petro Poroshenko told local residents in a small village that served as a popular lakeside resort before Kiev unleashed a full-scale “anti-terror” campaign on April 13.
The military operation’s official spokesman said that Ukrainian forces would formally halt fire at 10:00 pm (1900 GMT).
But a senior rebel commander immediately rejected the terms of Poroshenko’s plan for ending unceasing battles that have killed more than 375 people and left the ex-Soviet country on the verge of splitting in two.
“No one will lay down their arms until a full troop withdrawal from our land,” said Valeriy Bolotov of the self-declared Lugansk People’s Republic.
A Ukranian national security spokesman reported that the latest battles had claimed the lives of 13 soldiers — a toll underscoring the uptick in violence witnessed in the past week.
The sense that tensions on the ground were rising was reinforced when Washington followed up similar charges from NATO by accusing the Kremlin of stirring up new trouble along its neighbour’s western frontier.
A senior US administration official said Russia had deployed “significant” military forces near Ukraine “to provide active support for separatist fighters”.
The US official said the troops were “the closest they have been (to the border) since the invasion of Crimea” in March.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman had earlier confirmed deploying some units to “reinforce the protection of the Russian border”.
– 15-point peace plan –
Poroshenko’s ambitious push for peace followed two calls he had placed to Putin within 72 hours in the belief that no truce would work without the Russian strongman’s support.
The 48-year-old chocolate baron on his first visit to the restive industrial region of Donetsk since his June 7 inauguration said that seven days provided the rebels “more than enough time” to show they were willing to engage in direct talks.
Poroshenko’s announcement automatically enacted a 14-point plan that demands the rebels disarm and promises to decentralise power through constitutional reform.
The initiative drops criminal charges against fighters who committed no “serious crimes” and provides “a guaranteed corridor for Russian and Ukrainian mercenaries to leave” the conflict zone.
And it establishes a 10-kilometre (six mile) border buffer zone to stem the flow of gunmen and military equipment that both Kiev and Washington claim have been flooding in from Russia in recent weeks.
But it also calls on “local government bodies to resume their operations” — a demand rejected by separatist leaders who have proclaimed their independence from Kiev and occupied administration buildings in about a dozen cities and towns in the east.
The plan was the product of 10 days of European-mediated talks in Kiev between a Poroshenko envoy and Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine.
Poroshenko had earlier argued that a long-lasting peace could only be established once the land border with Russia was fully sealed — a job acting Defence Minister Mykhailo Koval said his forces had just accomplished.
– Decentralisation of power –
Putin had earlier bowed to Western pressure and refused to recognise the independence proclaimed by the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions in the wake of disputed May 11 sovereignty referendums.
But he has lobbied for Kiev to turn Ukraine into a federation that provides regional leaders with the right to draft laws and established independent trade relations with nations such as Russia.
The new pro-EU leaders who rose to power after months of deadly protests toppled Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych in February have faced similar pressure from Western leaders.
But Washington and the European Union have stopped short of supporting the “federalisation” idea promoted by Putin and the regional rights outlined in Poroshenko’s proposal were constrained.
It guarantees the “protection of the Russian language” and obliges the president to consult local leaders about whom he should appoint as governor.
But it does not give regions the right to elect their own heads of administration — another key Russian demand.
Putin’s official reaction to details of the plan Poroshenko — elected in a snap May 25 poll that gave him a convincing victory against several pro-Russian rivals — has been muted.
The Kremlin said Putin made “a series of comments” and stressed the need for the “immediate end to the military operation”.