KIEV (AFP) – Ukraine’s army and separatist rebels appeared Sunday to be complying at least partially with their truce accord, saying they will start pulling back heavy weapons from the frontline after carrying out a prisoner exchange.
But ongoing breaches of a week-old ceasefire – especially by the pro-Russian rebels, who overran a strategic town in a bloody offensive – have already prompted a threat from the United States of “serious” new sanctions against Moscow within days.
An AFP journalist in the eastern rebel stronghold of Donetsk heard intense shelling for an hour early Sunday to the north of the city, near the regional airport that fell to the rebels a month ago after fierce battles.
Fears were also rising over Mariupol, a government-held port city that is rapidly becoming another flashpoint. Continued shelling has been reported there and Kiev alleges that 20 Russian tanks have been deployed towards it.
Despite those hostilities, Ukrainian officials and the separatists said they have jointly agreed to finally start the pullback of heavy weapons – a step meant to have begun on Tuesday and completed by March 3 under the truce.
“The papers have been signed to begin withdrawing heavy weapons all along the frontline,” Ukrainian General Olexander Rozmaznin told AFP.
The rebel leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk republic, Eduard Basurin, said via the separatists’ news agency that “preparatory work” for the withdrawal would be carried out before the actual pullback starts on Tuesday, with the process to be finished by March 7.
In another sign that both sides in the conflict might now be willing to apply the truce, or at least parts of it, an overnight prisoner exchange took place in which 139 Ukrainian soldiers were traded for 52 rebel fighters.
Some of the soldiers struggled on wooden crutches across a war-torn landscape in the frontline town of Zholobok, near Lugansk, with support from their comrades.
One freed insurgent, Roman Biarinov, said he was going to get married and then return to the fight.
“We have to defend this land. We are going to win. I don’t know how, but we will win,” he said.