DONETSK, Ukraine (AFP) – Pro-Russian rebels said Tuesday they were starting to withdraw their big guns from the frontline in eastern Ukraine under a peace plan forged with Kiev aimed at ending five months of conflict.
However, AFP correspondents reported that separatist fighters and Ukrainian forces were battling around the airport in the main rebel-held city of Donetsk, underscoring the fragility of the deal.
The prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said fighters had pulled back artillery after similar moves by Ukrainian forces under the terms of a new ceasefire accord hammered out on Saturday.
“We have withdrawn artillery but only in those areas where the Ukrainian regular units have done the same. Where Ukraine hasn’t withdrawn artillery, we haven’t done so,” Alexander Zakharchenko told the Interfax news agency.
Ukraine had said Monday it was starting a pullback of heavy weapons under the terms of the deal signed in Minsk that calls for both sides to withdraw from the frontline and establish a 30-kilometre (20-mile) wide demilitarised zone.
Across the flashpoint industrial regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, the level of violence appears to have subsided after five months of fighting that has killed around 3,000 people and sent East-West tensions soaring.
However, AFP journalists said the airport in Donetsk, a key battleground in the conflict, was hit by heavy artillery on Tuesday morning, sending flames and large clouds of black smoke shooting into the sky.
“Not everything’s clear with the ceasefire,” Zakharchenko said. “Firing from the Ukrainian side is still going on as before. I would call this a slow-moving military operation.”
Donetsk city hall said a civilian was killed overnight, bringing to 40 the number of Ukrainian troops and civilians killed since an initial September 5 truce also signed in the Belarussian capital.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko agreed to the peace plan after several rounds of talks with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who is blamed by Kiev and the West for fomenting the rebellion by sending in elite troops and heavy weapons.