Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine claimed Saturday to have completed their end of a February deal with government forces to withdraw heavy weapons from the frontline as part of a truce.
“Today is the last day of the weapons withdrawal,” Eduard Basurin, one of the rebel leaders told reporters in the town of Snizhne, where the separatists presented eight 120mm mortars that had been moved back from their positions.
Watched by six international monitors, the separatists towed the arms to a disused brick factory serving as an arms depot, about 90 kilometres (55 miles) from the rebel hub of Donetsk.
Basurin said the separatists were withdrawing a total of 26 mortars. “They will be stored with the rest of the military hardware,” he said.
An AFP journalist saw four other artillery pieces inside the Snizhne depot.
Under the terms of the European-brokered truce signed in the Belarussian capital Minsk on February 12, both sides to Ukraine’s fratricidal 11-month conflict must move their artillery back far enough to create a buffer zone of between 50 and 140 kilometres, depending on the weapons’ range.
Alexander Zakharchenko, the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, accused Ukraine’s government of failing to live up to its side of the agreement.
“We have fully removed heavy weapons from the line of contact. Ukraine has not yet done it,” he told the separatist news agency DAN.
Zakharchenko threatened to return the arms to their positions if Kiev did not match the deescalation.
– No dead or injured –
Army spokesman Anatoliy Stelmakh told AFP that Kiev was continuing to withdraw its 220mm Uragan rocket launchers from the conflict zone, having already moved back its smaller Grad missile launchers.
“The process is ongoing,” he said.
Questioned about the rebels’ claim to be first to the finish line, another military spokesman said Kiev had “no information”.
“The international observers have not yet confirmed that to us,” Andriy Lysenko said.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is monitoring the truce and weapons withdrawal, has recorded movements on both sides over the past two weeks but said that without full access to the rivals’ inventories it cannot confirm how many arms remain on the battlefield.
Speaking in the Latvian capital Riga where he was attending an EU foreign ministers meeting, OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier told AFP there were still areas that the monitors “simply can’t reach”.
Russia and Germany have called for the OSCE mission to be more than doubled in strength, from its current tally of 452 to 1,000.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was also in Riga, said he had received assurances from his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that Moscow was committed to ensuring the OSCE had “guaranteed unlimited access”.
Each side to the conflict, which has claimed more than 6,000 lives since the separatists took up arms against Kiev last year, has accused the other of continuing sporadic attacks.
But in the past two weeks the truce has appeared to be largely holding.
Lysenko said Saturday that the government’s positions had been shelled 14 times by the rebels over the past 24 hours near Avdiyivka, north of Donetsk.
But he said he had good news to report: “For the first time over the past few months” no Ukrainian soldier was killed or injured by rebel fire.