KIEV (AFP) – Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian militias were due Saturday to pull back their troops from a demilitarised zone created under a new peace plan agreed in marathon overnight talks.
A nine-point agreement thrashed out in the early hours of Saturday in the Belarussian capital Minsk also requires the withdrawal of all “mercenaries” from eastern Ukraine and an immediate end to hostilities.
But Russia appeared ready to keep up the pressure on its westward-leaning neighbour by sending in a new convoy it claimed was carrying aid for the rebel-held city of Donetsk that Ukraine never approved.
Former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma – representing Kiev throughout stuttering efforts to resolve the five-month conflict – said the agreement rested on the creation of a 30-kilometre (20-mile) buffer zone.
Forces from both sides are required to retreat 15 kilometres from current frontlines within 24 hours of the signing of the accord and allow monitors from the OSCE pan-European security organisation into the area to make sure the truce holds.
Territory under rebel control would be left open to their administration under a temporary self-rule plan adopted by lawmakers in Kiev on Tuesday.
The Minsk pact – also signed by Moscow’s ambassador to Kiev and the self-proclaimed “prime ministers” of the rebel-run regions of Donetsk and Lugansk – aims to shore up a ceasefire deal agreed two weeks ago.
The latest agreement crucially requires both sides to immediately withdraw “foreign mercenaries” from the conflict zone in industrial eastern Ukraine.
Kiev and Western allies accuse Russia of clandestinely slipping at least 1,000 paratroopers into east Ukraine to help the guerrillas mount a surprise counter-offensive late last month.
The Kremlin denies ordering soldiers into Ukraine. But Moscow’s Kiev envoy Mikhail Zurabov told Russian media after the Minsk signing ceremony that both sides appeared to have hired foreign mercenaries.
Both sides agreed to leave the most divisive political issues concerning the rebel-held area’s status for future negotiation in order to get the terms of the truce worked out first.