Big guns pulled back as Ukraine gets first day of real peace since truce
Ukraine's army is starting the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line in the east as part of a truce, the defence ministry says.
Throughout yesterday, Ukrainian troops towed artillery away from the front line in the east, a move that amounted to recognising that a ceasefire meant to take effect on February 15 was holding at last.
The military showed reporters seven or eight guns being towed away from the front at the village of Paraskoviyvka, north of the government stronghold of Artemivsk. Earlier, journalists saw a larger convoy of 30-40 vehicles also towing guns away from the front on a highway.
The step was Kiev's most direct overture to acknowledge that the ceasefire was finally holding, a week after suffering one of the worst defeats of the war at the hands of rebels who initially ignored the ceasefire to launch a major advance.
The pro-Russian rebels, who committed to the truce after their successful offensive, have been pulling back heavy weapons for two days, but Kiev had until now held back from implementing the withdrawal, arguing that fighting had not yet ceased.
However, the army reported no combat fatalities at the front for a second straight day yesterday, the first time no troops have been killed since long before the French- and German-brokered truce was meant to take effect.
The withdrawal of artillery is "point two" of the peace agreement reached in the Belarus capital Minsk, so beginning it amounts to an acknowledgement that "point one" - the ceasefire itself - is being observed.
"Today, Ukraine has begun the withdrawal of 100 -millimetre guns from the line of confrontation," the military said in a statement, saying the step would be monitored by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
It said it reserved the right to alter the schedule of withdrawal "in the event of any attempted offensive". Reporters in rebel-held Donetsk said they had heard no artillery in the night, although the occasional distant blast or gunshot could be heard during the day.
The pullout of 100mm-calibre artillery is regarded as "the first step" and will be monitored by OSCE observers.
Pro-Russian rebels earlier said they had started withdrawing their weapons. This has not been verified by monitors.
The ceasefire came into effect on February 15, but the rebels seized the key town of Debaltseve just days later.
Fighting began in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions last April, a month after Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula.
Almost 5,800 people have died since then, the UN has estimated, although it believes the real figure could be considerably higher.
The Ukrainian government, Western leaders and Nato say there is clear evidence that Russia is helping the rebels with heavy weapons and soldiers.
Independent experts echo that accusation while Moscow denies it, insisting that any Russians serving with the rebels are "volunteers".
In a statement, the Ukrainian defence ministry warned that if there were any "attempts to attack", the pullout timetable would be "corrected".
The decision to begin moving artillery from the front line came shortly after Ukraine's military said its forces had suffered no fatalities in the past 48 hours, although several soldiers had been wounded.
The separatist rebels in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic claim that they have been pulling out their heavy weapons for the past several days.
The rebels say the process is being monitored by international observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
In a statement, the OSCE special monitoring mission said it observed movement of trucks and howitzers in several rebel-held areas.
However, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Ilkka Kanerva later said he was "profoundly disturbed by the illegal separatists' continuing refusal to grant unlimited, safe access to OSCE monitors on the ground in Ukraine and their violations of the Minsk Package of Measures".
Rebels brought Ukrainian war prisoners yesterday to the ruins of the airport on the north of the town to recover the dead bodies of their fellow Ukrainian troops, left buried in the wreckage since the terminal was captured in January.
Three dead bodies still lay at the site out of five that had been recovered from the debris the previous day.
Prisoners said they were searching for three more they believed were still buried.
The commander of the separatist "Sparta" battalion, going by the nom de guerre "Motorola", said the prisoners had been assigned the task because "it's not our job to recover dead bodies, it's our job to make them."
"They take their comrades out to return them to their mums and dads.
"Did they think we would feed them for free?" (Reuters and Bloomberg)