Friday, February 13, 2015

Ukraine: 'Putin Tried To Delay Ceasefire Deal So Rebels Could Capture Debaltseve'

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, sought to delay agreement on a Ukrainian ceasefire at talks in Minsk because he wanted pro-Russia separatists to capture the eastern railway hub of Debaltseve, an EU summit has been told.


Members of the Ukrainian armed forces near Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine, on Thursday.

Three of the four leaders at the talks in Minsk – the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, France’s president, Fran├žois Hollande, and Ukraine’s embattled president, Petro Poroshenko – dashed to the Brussels summit directly from Belarus.

Briefing 26 other EU heads of government on the fraught negotiations that resulted in a truce supposed to start on Sunday, the Minsk participants painted a picture that failed to inspire confidence. 

Witnesses to the discussion said all the EU leaders were sceptical about the success of the Minsk peace plan, not least because Putin had resisted pressure for a ceasefire.

He hoped to delay the truce by 10 days, the summit heard, in order to force the surrender of up to 8,000 Ukrainian troops who are surrounded in Debaltseve by pro-Russia separatists.

Putin was said to have made it clear that Debaltseve had to fall.

In public remarks following the deal, Putin also said that the separatists had the Ukrainian forces encircled and that “of course, they expect [the Ukrainians] to lay down their arms and cease resistance”. 

While the 13-point peace plan is complex and looks to political developments at least a year away, Poroshenko’s absolute priority was to get a ceasefire.

The Ukrainian leader delivered an emotional report to the summit on the plight of eastern Ukraine, witnesses said.

He said he had not slept for two nights.

Before the Minsk talks, he went to a hospital in the eastern town of Kramatorsk, where he was deeply affected by the sight of a four-year-old boy who had lost limbs in a shelling by separatist forces.

On the Ukraine deal, the mood of the EU summit was sombre, with the leaders concluding that Putin was more interested in war than in peace.

On Friday, Poroshenko was similarly pessimistic.

“I don’t want anyone to have any illusions and so I am not seen as a naive person: we are still a very long way from peace,” he said during a visit to a military training ground.

“Nobody has a strong belief that the peace conditions which were signed in Minsk will be implemented strictly.”

Both sides in the conflict accused each other of killing civilians on Friday morning.

Two people were killed and six wounded when a shell hit a packed cafe in the Kiev-controlled town of Shchastya near rebel-held Luhansk, a local official said, adding that other shells had struck elsewhere in the town.

The rebels accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the separatist stronghold of Donetsk and the town of Horlivka, where they said three children had been killed.

It was not possible to verify either of these reports, though an AFP journalist in Donetsk said that sporadic missile salvoes and dozens of artillery bombardments could be heard from the city starting early on Friday morning.

The Ukrainian military said 11 soldiers had been killed and 40 wounded in the past 24 hours.

“In the Donbass [eastern Ukraine], this night was not a calm one. The enemy shelled positions of the ‘anti-terrorist operation’ forces with the same intensity as before,” a statement by the Ukrainian military said. 

Fighting had been particularly intense around Debaltseve, where separatists had used rockets and artillery to attack government forces, the statement said.

The ceasefire agreed in Minsk was intended to pave the way for a comprehensive political settlement of the country’s crisis and followed a fraught 16 hours of overnight negotiations.

The summit resulted in a pact providing for a ceasefire between Ukrainian government troops and Russian-backed separatists, a withdrawal of heavy weaponry from the battle zone that is to be demilitarised, amnesties on both sides and exchanges of prisoners and hostages.

The ceasefire and weapons pullback is to be monitored by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

“The next 48 hours will be crucial,” said one EU diplomat at the Brussels summit.

Merkel cautioned against over-optimism after Minsk and was guarded about whether the peace pact would be observed and implemented.

“We have a glimmer of hope … but no illusions,” she said.

Depending on how events play out in eastern Ukraine in the weeks ahead, EU leaders are expected to decide whether to reinforce or relax economic sanctions on Russia next month.

US officials also said they were not taking sanctions off the table and bluntly warned the separatists against seizing more land before Sunday’s ceasefire formally takes effect.

David Cameron, the British prime minster, likewise urged EU leaders to stand firm on maintaining sanctions against Russia, saying it was “actions on the ground rather than just words on a piece of paper” that mattered.

If the early peacemaking measures take effect, they are to be followed by more ambitious political moves aimed at an overall political settlement by the end of the year, when Ukraine is supposed to have a new constitution, the rebel-held areas are to be granted decentralised “special status” and cross-border links with Russia, local elections are to be held in the breakaway areas while Kiev is also slated to take control of the border with Russia.

The US said success of the agreement would hinge on whether the Kiev government was able to restore control of its border with Russia. 

Under the plan, the government in Kiev may only secure its own border with Russia with the agreement of the separatists.

This was a demand that the rebel leaders tabled earlier in the week in the preparations for the summit.

Source: The Guardian

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