Separatists Withdraw Heavy Weapons to Boost Minsk Deal

Separatists Withdraw Heavy Weapons to Boost Minsk Deal Separatists Withdraw Heavy Weapons to Boost Minsk Deal

A senior commander of pro-Russian rebel forces in east Ukraine said separatists were due to begin withdrawing heavy weapons from the front line on Sunday.

The warring factions also exchanged prisoners on Saturday to mark the first moves toward implementing the peace deal reached on February 12 in the Belarusian capital Minsk after the French, German, Russian and Ukrainian leaders met.

General Alexander Lentsov, a key figure involved in implementing the truce, said the separatists had signed the orders to complete the withdrawal over the next two weeks, starting from Sunday, Reuters said in a report.

However, the Ukrainian military said the rebels were pressing on with attacks on government forces near Mariupol, a port in government hands that is seen as the rebels’ next major target.      

“We have designated 22 February as ‘D-Day’ as determined by the agreement from all sides. So [from Sunday] we will within the period of 14 days observe the agreement on the pullback of heavy weapons,” he said.

According to witness reports, a 20-vehicle convoy of separatist military trucks with anti-aircraft missile systems and howitzers were leaving Debaltseve in the direction of Donetsk on Sunday.

The pullout process had been due to start last Tuesday and completed by 3 March, but Lentsov said it would now take until March 7.

Another key element of the Minsk deal moved forward on Saturday as Ukrainian government forces and separatists exchanged nearly 200 prisoners in east Ukraine, a Ukrainian security council aide confirmed on Sunday.

According to reports, 139 Ukrainian servicemen were released on Saturday evening in exchange for 52 rebel fighters in the village of Zholobok, 20 km west of the separatists’ stronghold in Luhansk.

Despite the peace-seeking efforts, a bomb blasted at a rally in Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv Sunday, killing at least three people, including a police officer, and injuring 10. The rally was one of several being held to mark a year since the Kiev uprising that led to the fall of former Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych.

  US Mulls Sanctions

The exchange came as US Secretary of State John Kerry said in his trip to London that Washington was considering “serious sanctions” against Russia following breaches of the truce, and that a decision would be made in the coming days.

Fighting has eased in many areas since a ceasefire came into effect a week ago, but the truce was shaken on Wednesday following the capture of the strategic town of Debaltseve by separatists, forcing a retreat by thousands of Ukrainian troops.

Kiev accuses separatists of building up forces and weapons in Ukraine’s south east and the Ukrainian military said on Saturday it was braced for the possibility of a rebel attack on the port city of Mariupol.

Nearly 5,700 people have died and 1.5 million have fled their homes since fighting erupted last April in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, according to the UN.

The news of fundamental agreements between Ukrainian government forces and separatists came as former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia a year ago after being toppled by months of street protests, said he was ready to return to Ukraine if the opportunity arose.

The ousted Ukrainian leader, said in a TV interview aired on Saturday he regretted that he could not return to his country.

“God has left me alive, so it looks like I’m needed for something. As soon as there is a possibility for me to return, I will return and will do everything I can to make life better in Ukraine.”