Ukraine To Pull Back Artillery From Edge Of Separatist Zone

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine’s military announced on Thursday that it would begin withdrawing some heavy artillery from areas bordering separatist-held territory in the country’s southeast under a cease-fire agreement negotiated this month.

Ukrainian forces on Thursday prepared to pull back from the area around Debaltseve, which is held by separatist fighters.

The announcement followed the separatists’ capture of the strategic town Debaltseve last week in an onslaught that President Petro O. Poroshenko called a “brutal violation” of the cease-fire agreement signed just days earlier in Minsk, Belarus.

Though the deal appeared in tatters, Thursday’s statement reaffirmed the government’s support for the cease-fire, which could provide a road map to ending a conflict that has left nearly 6,000 dead since last April.

Ukraine’s military also reported Thursday that no servicemen had been killed or wounded for a second straight day along the so-called “line of confrontation” between Ukrainian forces and the Russian-backed rebels.

“Today, Ukraine begins the withdrawal of 100-millimeter guns from the dividing lines” of the conflict, a government statement on the military’s official website said, adding that the withdrawal should be monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Separatist forces announced shortly after the capture of Debaltseve that they would withdraw their heavy artillery and claimed to have pulled back hundreds of artillery pieces in the last several days.

The Ukrainian military said the schedule for the withdrawal of its artillery could be adjusted if army positions were attacked.

“If there are attempts to attack, the heavy weapons withdrawal schedule will be adjusted,” the statement read.

“Ukrainian troops are fully prepared to defend the country.”

Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission in Ukraine, said monitors would expect to receive inventories of heavy weapons from both sides in the conflict, the routes by which they would be evacuated and secure storage sites where the withdrawals could be verified. 

“It’s not a one-shot deal,” he said.

“We don’t want to be put in a position where we are rubber-stamping movements. Our bottom line is credible verification.”

The Minsk agreement dictated that artillery withdrawal begin last week, but the deadline passed as heavy fighting continued at Debaltseve.

Source: The New York Times