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NATO warns on Ukraine truce as fighters set to pull back

Russia says a number of its troops captured by Kiev's forces must have accidentally strayed across the border.

By: Agence France Presse | Kiev |
September 21, 2014 3:00:33 pm

Ukrainian forces and pro-Kremlin militias were due today to pull back under a new peace plan, but NATO’s top military commander warned that there was a ceasefire “in name only” on the ground.

The warring sides are required to move back fighters and weaponry and create a buffer zone along the frontline that splits the separatist east of Ukraine from the rest of the ex-Soviet state.

The withdrawal and an accompanying monitoring mission by teams from the OSCE pan-European security body are at the heart of a nine-point plan struck early yesterday in the Belarussian capital Minsk.

NATO top commander, General Philip Breedlove, said on Saturday that continued clashes had shown the two-week-old agreement to be a ceasefire “in name only” and accused Russia of keeping soldiers on Ukrainian soil to bolster the insurgents.

The deal is meant to reinforce a truce forged on September 5 in a bid to stem five months of conflict that has claimed nearly 3,000 lives and threatened Ukraine’s very survival.

The truce was “still there in name, but what is happening on the ground is quite a different story,” Breedlove said on the sidelines of a NATO meeting symbolically convened in the ex-Soviet satellite state of Lithuania.

But he struck a more optimistic note when he spoke of Saturday’s Minsk agreement. “It is our sincere hope and desire that… the two combatants can come to agreement to again get to a ceasefire situation,” he said.

The Minsk memorandum — signed by the warring parties and endorsed by both Moscow’s Kiev ambassador and an OSCE envoy — also requires the withdrawal of all “foreign armed groups” and mercenaries from the conflict zone.

Russia denies having any forces in Ukraine. It says a number of its troops captured by Kiev’s forces must have accidentally strayed across the border.

But Breedlove insisted NATO intelligence showed that the Russian forces “are still inside Ukraine”.

Former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, who is representing Kiev throughout stuttering efforts to resolve the crisis, also warned the Minsk deal would fall apart without the creation of a 30-kilometre (20-mile) demilitarised zone.

Swiss president and OSCE chief Didier Burkhalter hailed the Minsk deal as “a significant step towards making the ceasefire sustainable and an important contribution in the efforts to peacefully settle the crisis”.

But the pact only came together after all sides agreed to leave the most divisive political issues over the status of the rebel-held areas in Ukraine’s rustbelt for future negotiation.

It also overlooked unceasing flareups in violence that have claimed the lives of 35 Ukrainians soldiers and civilians since the original truce was declared.

A series of blasts tore through a Soviet-era munitions plant on the outskirts of the main rebel stronghold city of Donetsk, local officials said.

Rebel representatives in the city of nearly one million people also said yesterday they had received a huge Russian humanitarian convoy.

A Ukrainian security spokesman said Moscow had blatantly “violated international law and our sovereignty” because it never gave Ukrainian customs officials a chance to inspect the cargo.

Saturday’s Minsk agreement came at end of a dizzying week for Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko that included Kiev’s ratification of a landmark EU association agreement.

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