'Glimmer of hope' for Ukraine as new deal announced
We have no illusions about this deal, warns Merkel on ceasefire
IT was neither a comprehensive solution or a breakthrough, and Angela Merkel spoke only of a "glimmer of hope". But after a gruelling 16-hour negotiating session in Minsk, the end of the conflict in Ukraine may finally be in sight.
All sides will cease fire from midnight tomorrow under the deal agreed by Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko and midwifed by Mrs Merkel and Francois Hollande.
The ceasefire will be followed by a withdrawal of heavy artillery and rocket systems from both sides of the lines and an exchange of prisoners.
The deal, which is based on September's stillborn Minsk peace agreement, also lays out a road map for a lasting settlement in eastern Ukraine, including an amnesty for separatists and devolution of power from Kiev to the war-torn eastern regions.
Mrs Merkel and Mr Hollande both praised the deal as the best chance yet to end the bloodshed, but emphasised that the progress made is fragile.
"We now have a glimmer of hope, we have agreed on a comprehensive implementation of Minsk. But the concrete steps must of course be gone, and there are still major hurdles lie ahead," said Mrs Merkel.
"I have no illusions. We have no illusions," she said, adding that "much work" remained.
Mrs Merkel said agreement was only possible when Mr Putin pressured Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, the heads of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, into signing the road map negotiated by the four national leaders.
A previous ceasefire deal collapsed after Mr Zakharchenko and Mr Plotnitsky announced they wanted full independence from Ukraine and launched an offensive to conquer further territory.
Mr Putin, who was the first leader to emerge from the talks, said negotiations had dragged on because of Ukrainian refusal to speak directly to separatist leaders and disagreements over the fate of Debaltseve, a strategic railway junction where about 2,000 Ukrainian troops are trying to fight off a separatist encirclement.
"It was not the best night in my life but the morning, I think, it is good because we have managed to agree on the main things despite all the difficulties of the negotiations," Mr Putin said.
Mr Poroshenko said he found it difficult to trust Mr Putin to keep his promises, fearing the separatists would use the two days before the ceasefire to further their gains.
"We demanded immediate ceasefire without any precondition. Unfortunately they demanded we have almost 70 hours before ceasefire was launched. Immediately after the deal was signed, the Russian-backed terrorists started the offensive operation," he said.
"That is why it is vitally important for us, for all of us to keep the pressure to keep the promises about the ceasefire - about the withdrawal of the heavy weapons, about the immediate release of all the hostages, about the withdrawal of all the foreign troops and mercenaries, and the closing of the border".
Western governments cautiously welcomed the agreement, but warned that it is now up to Mr Putin to live up to his commitments. The White House said that the deal would be meaningless without "concrete steps" towards implantation, including the withdrawal of Russian troops. "The true test of today's accord will be in its full and unambiguous implementation, including the durable end of hostilities and the restoration of Ukrainian control over its border with Russia," their statement said.
Critics have warned that an escalation of violence seems inevitable despite, or perhaps because, of the ceasefire. Ukrainian officials said that more Russian tanks crossed the border even as the talks continued. (© Daily Telegraph, London)