KIEV (AFP) – Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine promised Friday to start exchanging prisoners, in a possible boost to a ceasefire that the US accuses separatists of repeatedly violating.
A rebel official for human rights, Daria Morozova, said an initial exchange of prisoners with the Ukrainian side would take place on Saturday, the Interfax news agency reported.
There was no immediate confirmation from Kiev, but such a swap was agreed by both sides as part of the truce forged last week in the Belarus capital Minsk under European mediation.
That UN-backed truce, though, has been left in tatters by repeated violations since it came into effect last Sunday, with each side regularly accusing the other of ceasefire breaches.
The worst transgression was a rebel assault on Debaltseve, a strategic transport hub linking the insurgents’ two strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk, from where 2,500 government soldiers fled on Wednesday and scores of others were taken prisoner.
Kiev said 13 troops were killed in the withdrawal. But the rebels, now in control of the town, said they found the bodies of 57 soldiers – as well as many abandoned weapons, including 28 tanks.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose government is being criticised for incompetence over the rout, accused Russia of ordering the Debaltseve offensive and called for international peacekeepers to be deployed.
However, in a phone call Thursday between Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin, that appeal was ignored and the leaders agreed that the ceasefire should be applied regardless.
“This is a critical moment for Ukraine,” warned Ivica Dacic, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which is tasked with monitoring the ceasefire.
In a statement, Dacic urged an immediate halt to hostilities, saying he was “concerned that the continuous breaches of the ceasefire may lead to uncontrolled violence”.
Significantly, there has been no confirmation of either side pulling back heavy weapons from the frontline, which was meant to begin Tuesday and be completed by March 3.
Merkel and Hollande were to discuss the situation further in a meeting in Paris later on Friday.
The United States, which said early this month it was mulling providing defensive weapons to Ukraine, said the pro-Russian separatists had broken the ceasefire “more than 250 times”.
“The United States condemns continuing attacks by Russia-backed separatists in and around Debaltseve, Mariupol and other locations in eastern Ukraine which violate the ceasefire and flout the Minsk agreements,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington on Thursday.
Psaki called on Russia and the separatists “to stop their attacks immediately, withdraw heavy weapons, halt the flow of fighters and equipment from Russia into Ukraine”.
Moscow denies directly supporting the rebels.
Meanwhile, a scathing report from a British parliamentary committee said Britain and the EU were “guilty of sleepwalking into this crisis” by failing to understand Russian motives and aims.
“The lack of robust analytical capacity, in both the UK and the EU, effectively led to a catastrophic misreading of the (Russian) mood in the run-up to the crisis,” said Christopher Tugendhat, chairman of the EU Committee in Britain’s House of Lords.
Eurasia Group, a think tank, said in an analysis note that it believed “it is likely that all sides in the conflict will avoid further provocative steps for the moment, which would keep the Minsk agreement alive, if damaged”.
It noted the EU had already ratcheted up sanctions on Moscow on Monday when it became clear the ceasefire was being breached around Debaltseve, and predicted that Poroshenko would not yet order martial law across Ukraine, as he had threatened if the truce broke down.
Nevertheless Eurasia Group estimated at 55 percent the likelihood “the Minsk plan will eventually fall apart” because of tricky later stages of the peace plan, which call for negotiations over autonomy for rebel regions and Ukraine regaining control over its border with Russia.