Ukrainian authorities and Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine agreed overnight in Belarus to create a wide buffer zone between each side’s forces, to withdraw heavy weapons out of reach of one another and to send foreign fighters home.
The deal hashed out in Minsk, attended by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), aims to stop the bloody conflict. Since mid-April, it has plagued eastern Ukraine, costing more than 3,000 lives and sparking the greatest crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
It has been two weeks since a preliminary cease-fire was announced after a meeting between the same negotiating parties in Minsk on Sept. 5. During that time, both sides went light on the cease and heavy on the fire, with shelling occurring daily throughout the conflict zone. All sides, however, maintain that the cease-fire has largely held.
Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, Kiev’s representative at the Minsk meeting, said that all sides had agreed to move heavy artillery “15 kilometers (9 miles) away from the front line,” creating a 30 kilometer (19-mile) buffer zone. Heavier artillery must be pulled further back and out of firing range. Also, under the agreement, military aircraft are banned from flying over the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, and new minefields may not be set up military aircraft are banned from flying over the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, and new minefields may not be set up.
Igor Plotnitsky, self-proclaimed rebel leader in Luhansk region, said the deal “should offer the population a chance to feel secure.”
Also noted in the new deal, “foreign mercenaries” on both sides must leave the fight, according to the memorandum.
Russian ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov, Moscow’s representative in the peace talks, said “mercenaries” were fighting for both sides. He called on the OSCE to see that the two sides comply.
Ukraine and the West have repeatedly accused Russia of sending supplies to the rebels, as well as regular troops to fight alongside them.
Russia, though, has vehemently denied the accusations, saying that any of its citizens and soldiers fighting with the rebels are doing so as volunteers. Some Russian soldiers, Moscow suggested, had come on holiday to eastern Ukraine.
According to Kuchma, the deal will be implemented within 24 hours, and monitors from the OSCE would be dispatched to the buffer zone to make sure both sides complied.
“In accordance with the text of the memorandum, which talks about a 15-kilometer zone, each side should begin removing its heavy equipment and weapons today,” Volodymyr Poliovy, a spokesperson for the National Security and Defense Council told journalists in Kiev on Saturday.
Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of rebels in Donetsk region, said that neither side discussed during the Minsk meeting the contentious issue of the status of rebel-held territories in Donetsk and Luhansk.
“We are not discussing if the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics will stay part of Ukraine,” he said. “We have our own opinion and they have their opinion. It’s an issue for further negotiation. The issue of the status of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics can only be discussed after an appropriate law is passed in Ukraine.”
The Ukrainian parliament this week did approve bills that will grant the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk limited self-rule and an amnesty to separatists who have not committed violent crimes. The law also calls for local elections to be held in December.
While Zakharchenko said earlier that he would settle for nothing less than “full independence” for the separatist territories, he noted, “The very fact of this law essentially indicates the recognition of our independence.”
He said previously that he would at least consider the law on self-rule. Plotnitsky, his counterpart in Luhansk, welcomed the law when it was passed.
Third Russian convoy enters Ukraine
Meanwhile, a third convoy arrived from Russia’s Rostov region in eastern Ukraine, again without permission from Kiev. Some 200 white KAMAZ trucks trundled over the border early Saturday, carrying food, power generators, medical supplies, clothes and bottled water to grief-stricken eastern Ukrainians, Russian state media reported.
Russia said Ukrainian authorities and the International Committee of the Red Cross were given an opportunity to inspect the trucks, but had “refused without offering any reasons,” Itar-Tass reported.
Andriy Lysenko, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told reporters in Kiev on Saturday that Russia had told the government it planned to send the convoy, but did not ask authorities for permission to do so.
Russia previously sent two convoys to eastern Ukraine without the permission of authorities in Kiev or inspections at the border.
Explosions in Donetsk
As news of the Minsk deal and Russian convoy broke, so did news of two explosions at a Donetsk plant used to make military explosives and ammunition.
Ivan Prykhodko, deputy chairperson of the Donetsk’s Voroshylivsky district council, said a shell that hit the plant caused the first explosion, while the second was caused by a detonation of the remaining explosives.
“Luckily, the shell didn’t hit the main explosives storage facility, where some 2,500 tons [of explosives] are located,” Prykhodko told Ukrainian news channel 112, according to the Interfax news agency
On Saturday morning, residents of the conflict-torn regional capital shared photos and videos on social media, showing the powerful blast and resulting huge plume of white smoke billowing into the sky.
Prykhodko said no one was injured from the explosion, but the plant was “seriously damaged.”
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