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Kyiv, Rebels Begin Pulling Back Small-Caliber Weapons

  • RFE/RL

A TOS-1A Buratino multiple rocket is launched during a military drill at the Prudboi training ground in Russia's Volgograd region. (file photo)

A TOS-1A Buratino multiple rocket is launched during a military drill at the Prudboi training ground in Russia's Volgograd region. (file photo)

Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels began withdrawing small-caliber weapons and tanks from the front lines in the east of the country on October 3.

Such a move is spelled out in the Minsk peace agreement reached in the Belarus capital back in February. That agreement has been largely flaunted, especially its cease-fire. But fighting has for the most part ceased in recent weeks. Plus, an agreement was reached earlier this week on withdrawing tanks and other weapons. The moves have fueled hopes of bringing an end to the conflict that has killed more than 7,900 people since it erupted in April 2014.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko confirmed the government would begin pulling small-caliber weapons -- arms with a caliber of less than 100 millimeters -- on October 3 and that the process would take 41 days.

Pro-Russia rebels in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine announced on October 3 that they were pulling tanks back from the buffer zone.

An Associated Press reporter saw three columns of rebel tanks leaving the front line areas near Shchastya in the Luhansk region.

Rebels from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic said they would only begin the process after October 18 if the cease-fire remains in place.

Asked if the pullback signaled an end to the conflict, Poroshenko said: "It means there's a truce. The war will be over when the last piece of Ukrainian land has been liberated."

Poroshenko was speaking after a summit with the leaders of Russia, France, and Germany in Paris on October 3 to assess the Minsk peace agreement.

The meeting between Poroshenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Francois Hollande ended with a call for a delay of controversial rebel plans to hold local elections this month.

Ukraine is planning to hold regional elections on October 25. But the separatists in rebel-controlled areas of Luhansk and Donetsk are proposing their own polls for October 18 and November 1.

Hollande said after the summit that local elections should be organized under Ukrainian law, "which means the elections of October 18 cannot be held." He said the elections could be held 90 days after Ukraine passes a law enabling the vote.

Earlier this year, the Ukrainian parliament passed legislation calling local elections across the country. However, it excluded rebel-held regions in the east since Ukrainian officials have no access to these areas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin promised to have an envoy discuss the election issues with rebel leaders. Peskov also added that Kyiv should extend an amnesty to those running for office to encourage the rebels to hold the elections under Ukrainian laws.

At the summit, Poroshenko said the four leaders also agreed to help observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to get "unhindered access" to all areas in the east, including those sections along the border between Ukraine and Russia controlled by the separatists.

Kyiv says gaining control over the entire border will allow it to stop the flow of weapons to the rebels from Russia.

Just last week, OSCE monitors spotted a Buratino multiple-rocket launch system at a rebel camp near the town of Kruhlyk in the separatist-controlled Luhansk region.

The Buratino is equipped with thermobaric warheads, which spread a flammable liquid around a target and then ignite it.

"I believe it is the first time we've seen this multiple rocket-launch system there," Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the OSCE monitoring mission, told the Associated Press.

Ukraine does not have the Buratino in its arsenal and believes it could only have been supplied to the rebels by Russia, Ukrainian General Staff spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov told the AP.

Russia denies arming the separatists.

With reporting by AP, Interfax, Reuters, and AFP