Ukraine, pro-Russian rebels agree airport truce

2nd December 2014, Comments 0 comments

Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists agreed Tuesday to a truce at Donetsk airport -- ground zero in a war that has killed more than 4,000 people -- as well as across a wider swathe of rebel-held territory.

"Today, we reached an agreement to halt fire at 6:00 pm Moscow time (1500 GMT) around Donetsk airport," the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic co-leader Andrei Purgin told reporters.

That and a ceasefire announcement for the separatist stronghold of nearby Lugansk province were rare pieces of good news for Ukraine where daily shelling and skirmishing have pushed a wider Russian-brokered peace accord signed September 5 to the brink of collapse.

The Ukrainian conflict has killed some 4,300 people in the east of the ex-Soviet republic and sent relations between Russia and the West to their lowest ebb since the Cold War.

At a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday, NATO foreign ministers gave firm backing to Kiev, urging Russia to support a ceasefire, and approved aid to modernise Ukraine's military.

Russia, which annexed Crimea in March, another Ukrainian province, denies accusations that it is behind the separatist uprising in the east. Moscow instead accuses the West of aggressively encroaching on its traditional sphere of influence.

The Russian foreign ministry issued a furious statement on Monday accusing NATO of "trying to destabilise the world's most stable region" by sending extra defences into countries such as the three tiny Baltic states.

The shifting military and diplomatic situation came as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko -- elected in May on a promise to fight corruption and to lead the country into Western institutions -- faced growing domestic criticism over his handling of the war.

But Ukraine's parliament was hoping to overcome weeks of deadlock and confirm a new government line-up on Tuesday that could potentially include several foreign technocrats put forward by Poroshenko.

- Symbol of renewal, disaster -

Despite the truce deal, shelling echoed across Donetsk early Tuesday and the mayor's office said the security situation remained "very tense".

The airport was rebuilt in time for Ukraine's hosting of the Euro 2012 football championships, but the glittering symbol of Ukraine's bid to become a modern European state then turned into the hottest battlefield of the war and its ruins are now held mostly by besieged Ukrainian government troops.

The truce was agreed after the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) revealed three-way talks last Saturday between Ukrainian and rebel officials, as well as the deputy head of Russian ground forces, General Alexander Lentsov.

In addition to the airport deal, the parties also settled the outline of a ceasefire accord for Lugansk province.

"All agreed in principle to a total ceasefire along the entire line of contact between Ukrainian Armed Forces and those under control of the (Lugansk People's Republic), to be effective from 5 December," the OSCE said in a statement released late Monday.

"They also agreed that the withdrawal of heavy weapons would start on 6 December," the statement added.

Lugansk separatist chief Igor Plotnitsky said the talks produced a deal to establish a military buffer zone.

The cordon "will be 15-20 kilometres (9-12 miles) wide," he told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

- Wider peace deal? -

Meanwhile, talks were also taking place over a truce in the wider Donetsk province, an industrial and mining area which includes the rebel bastion of Donetsk city near the airport.

A top Donetsk separatist leader told AFP that no final agreement was expected for that province before all sides sat down for negotiations late Tuesday.

The talks "will concern an end to fighting in all the hotspots," the source said.

Analysts said it was premature to draw conclusions on the prospects for more long-lasting peace.

"With the oil price continuing to fall, Russia may be more reluctant to support separatist regions and finding a solution may be more appealing, but it's too early to say at this stage," said Alisa Lockwood of London's IHS Country Risk.

Oleksiy Melnyk of the Razumkov Centre in Kiev said deteriorating weather conditions may also have been a factor and he put little faith that the truce could hold.

"I am not placing many hopes on the idea that these agreements will have much better prospects than the agreements reached (on September 5)," Melnyk said.

Ukraine is expected to feature heavily when foreign ministers from the 57 OSCE member countries meet in Basel on Thursday and Friday.

© 2014 AFP

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