Pro-Russia rebels "to withdraw weapons from Ukraine frontline’

Pro-Russia rebels

The rebel announcement comes as Ukrainian military and separatist representatives exchanged dozens of prisoners on Saturday evening, kicking off a process intended to usher in peace to the conflict-ridden east.

A senior pro-Russian rebel commander said separatist forces were due to begin withdrawing heavy weapons from the frontline in east Ukraine on Sunday, a step towards implementing an internationally brokered peace deal.

Senior separatist commander Eduard Basurin told the Russian news agency Interfax that rebel forces would begin a two-week process of withdrawing heavy weapons from the frontline in east Ukraine on Sunday.

The Ukrainian side also appeared ready to pull back its weapons, according to a Ukrainian senior military official.

"The papers have been signed to begin withdrawing heavy weapons all along the frontline," Ukrainian general Olexander Rozmaznin told AFP on Sunday.

Fighting has eased in many areas since a ceasefire came into effect a week ago, but the truce was shaken by the rebel capture on Wednesday of the town of Debaltseve, forcing a retreat by thousands of Ukrainian troops.

But moves towards pulling back heavy weapons, together with the exchange of dozens of prisoners with Ukrainian government forces, could indicate the rebels intend to observe the truce more fully, having achieved a key military objective by seizing Debaltseve.

A Reuters witness saw a 20-vehicle convoy of separatist military trucks with anti-aircraft missile systems and howitzers leaving Debaltseve in the direction of Donetsk.

Fighting still going on

“Let’s not forget that these indications of compliance with the ceasefire are happening as fighting is still going on”, said Gulliver Cragg, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Ukraine.

“The Ukrainian military spokespeople report attacks on their position north-west of Donetsk, and also in the village of Shyrokyne, east of the port of Mariupol," Cragg added.

Kiev has accused the separatists of building up forces and weapons in Ukraine’s southeast and said it is braced for the possibility of a rebel attack on Mariupol.

The rebel press service DAN said Ukrainian troops had been shelling parts of Donetsk, reporting that artillery fire could be heard in the city at around 0730 GMT on Sunday.

“Prisoner exchanges have happened before under the terms of the previous Minsk agreement (…) what didn’t happen then — and what still hasn’t happened now despite today’s declaration — is the withdrawal of heavy artillery,” said FRANCE 24’s Gulliver Cragg.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

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