Ukraine begins withdrawing its heavy weapons from front line

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Ukraine’s military has said it will start pulling back its heavy weapons from the front line with Russian-backed separatists as required under a ceasefire agreement.

But the Defence Ministry said in a statement that it reserved the right to revise its withdrawal plans in the event of an attack by rebel forces. It added the first weapons to be pulled back would be 100 mm field guns.

The intensity of fighting has declined notably in recent days, although the warring sides have continued to trade accusations of violations in the ceasefire that came into force at one minute past midnight on February 15.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine has killed nearly 5,800 people since April. A peace deal agreed earlier this month by the leaders of Russia and Ukraine, brokered by France and Germany, aims to cement a ceasefire and begin a pullback of heavy weapons.

Implementation of that deal is being overseen by an almost 600-strong team from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Before the Ukraine announcement, Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the OSCE monitoring mission, complained that the warring sides had made little progress in laying the grounds for weapons withdrawal.

That requires both sides to inventory their weapons and provide details about how and where they are to be relocated, he said.

“It’s not enough to be invited to follow the removal process part of the way. It has to be complete,” he said. “It’s not a shopping list, you cannot pick and choose.”

Ukraine’s military said yesterday that its positions had not been shelled over the previous night.

But Ukrainian military spokesman, Colonel Andriy Lysenko, said there had been isolated armed confrontations, including on the fringes of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

Kiev has until now demurred from pulling back its heavy weapons, insisting separatists fully observe the ceasefire.

That stand was dismissed as “ridiculous” by Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.

“Everyone understands that there isn’t an ideal truce and an ideal regime of ceasing fire,” Mr Lavrov said.