KIEV (AFP) – Sporadic explosions and artillery fire rattled around the Ukrainian rebel stronghold of Donetsk on Wednesday, just a day after lawmakers offered temporary self rule to the separatists fighting in the east.
The Ukrainian military said several people were “killed and wounded” in gunfire overnight in the flashpoint region, but gave no details and there was no immediate confirmation from local officials.
Pro-Moscow rebels gave Kiev’s apparent olive branch a cautious welcome but also defiantly insisted it would not stop their fight for full independence as part of “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”).
Lawmakers unanimously approved the “special status” law just moments before they ratified a landmark pact with the European Union that steers Ukraine decisively away from Russia’s sphere of influence.
And Moscow, virulently opposed to Ukraine’s pro-Western shift, signalled it had no intention of backing down in the most serious standoff with the West since the Cold War.
It announced plans on Tuesday to send more troops to Crimea, which it invaded and swiftly annexed in March, in apparent retaliation for US-led war games under way in western Ukraine.
The self-rule legislation and an amnesty law for fighters was drawn up as part of a peace plan signed by both Kiev and Moscow that is seen as the most significant push to end the five-month conflict in Ukraine’s rustbelt.
President Petro Poroshenko said Ukraine was “now approaching a point at which people stop dying in the east and finally… have the chance to elect their own leaders”.
“And we will have to come to an understanding with these leaders, bringing people peace, calm and harmony.”
A total of almost 2,900 people have been killed and at least 600,000 forced to flee their homes across the war-battered east, according to UN figures.
And although the crisis may be abating, up to 30 civilians and Ukrainian servicemen have been killed since the September 5 truce, most in shelling around the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.
Andrei Purgin, deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said the rebels would study the legislation, describing it as a “positive signal because it marks Kiev’s return to reality”.
But he also said bluntly that Donbass “no longer has anything to do with Ukraine”.
The “special status” legislation gives three years of limited self-rule to the separatist regions of both Donetsk and Lugansk and calls for local polls in December.
It also guarantees the right for Russian to be used in all state institutions – a particularly sensitive issue in the mainly Russophone regions collectively known as Donbass.
Another law grants amnesty to the insurgents and Ukrainian government forces over their actions during the conflict, although rights groups have alleged abuses by both sides that could be considered war crimes.