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Ukraine buffer zone peace deal


Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk, speaks to the media in Minsk (AP)

Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk, speaks to the media in Minsk (AP)

Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk, speaks to the media in Minsk (AP)

Negotiators in Ukrainian peace talks agreed to create a buffer zone to separate government troops and pro-Russian militants.

The deal also included withdrawing heavy weapons and foreign fighters in order to ensure a stable truce in eastern Ukraine, and was reached by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the Moscow-backed rebels and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

It marks an effort to add substance to a ceasefire agreement that was signed on September 5 but has been frequently broken by clashes.

The memorandum signed after hours of talks that dragged late into the night says that the conflicting parties should stay strictly where they were yesterday and make no attempts to advance.

Leonid Kuchma, a former Ukrainian president who represented the Kiev government in the talks, said the memorandum will be implemented within a day.

Under the terms of the deal, reached in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, each party must pull its artillery at least nine miles back, setting up a buffer zone that would be 19 miles)wide.

The longer-range artillery systems are to be pulled even farther back to make sure the parties cannot reach one another.

The deal also specifically bans flights by combat aircraft over the area of conflict and setting up new minefields.

"It should offer the population a chance to feel secure," said Igor Plotnitskyi, the leader of rebels in the Luhansk region.

The rebels are located near the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine and also halfway to the city of Mariupol south of there on the coast, but their positions outside of these cities are not clear.

Ukrainian government forces are at the airport in Donetsk but the location of their lines outside of that city is also unclear.

The memorandum also envisages the withdrawal of "all foreign armed units and weapons, as well as militants and mercenaries" - a diplomatic reference to Russians fighting alongside the rebels.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fuelling the insurgency in eastern Ukraine with weapons and soldiers. Moscow has denied that, saying that Russians who joined the mutiny did so as private citizens.

Heidi Tagliavini, OSCE's envoy in the talks, said that the group's monitors will be deployed to the buffer zone to monitor the cease-fire.

The negotiators, however, have left aside the most explosive issue - the future status of the rebel regions.

The insurgency in the mostly Russian-speaking Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine flared up after Ukraine's former pro-Russian president was ousted in February, and Russia's annexation of Crimea the following month.

In April, the rebels seized government buildings in the two provinces and declared them independent. They fought government troops to a standstill in five months of fighting that have killed more than 3,000 people and devastated the regions that formed Ukraine's industrial heartland.

The Ukrainian crisis has pushed Russia-West relations to their lowest point since the Cold War.

Faced with several rounds of Western sanctions that badly hurt the Russian economy, Russia's President Vladimir Putin has pushed for a peace deal that would ease Western pressure while protecting Moscow's interests in Ukraine.

As part of a compromise to end the hostilities, the Ukrainian parliament this week passed a law giving a broad autonomy to the areas controlled by the rebels, including the power to hold local elections and form their own police force.

Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of rebels in Donetsk, said after the talks that Ukraine and the rebels have conflicting interpretations of the law and the talks should continue.

In Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city in east Ukraine, the separatists held a city-wide clean-up day yesterday, sending prisoners out to help remove the debris that has piled up after months of shelling.

Throughout the ceasefire, periods of peace have been interrupted by intermittent gunfire.

That was true yesterday, when the Donetsk city council said one person was killed by shelling during the night. Colonel Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the national security and defence council, said in Kiev that two servicemen were killed in the past day during the fighting.

PA Media