Pro-Russian separatists say they have decided to postpone disputed local elections in territory they control until next year, a move the European Union called a "fundamental step" toward full implementation of an accord aimed at resolving the deadly conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Denis Pushilin and Vladislav Deinego, the representatives of the self-proclaimed "people's republics" in parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions, said in a joint statement that local elections scheduled for October 18 and November 1 would be postponed until next year.
The statement, published on the rebels' Donetsk News Agency website, said the separatists decided to delay holding the elections after studying the results of the Paris summit on October 2 involving the leaders of Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine.
Pushilin and Deinego, who represent the rebels in talks moderated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said they would not hold the elections as scheduled as long as Ukraine fully implemented the "political points" of the Minsk peace deal that was signed in February.
Ukrainian officials and several Western governments had condemned the rebel plans to hold the elections and said the balloting would be a gross violation of the Minsk protocol.
The EU's foreign affairs arm welcomed the decision to postpone the elections, saying that, if implemented, it "will represent a fundamental step towards full implementation of the Minsk agreements."
The United States also applauded the decision.
"People living in separatist-controlled areas deserve to pick their local officials in elections that meet international standards, are compliant with Ukrainian law, and monitored by the OSCE," U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington.
More than 7,900 people have been killed in the conflict between government forces and the Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine since April 2014. Fighting has diminished substantially since September 1, but the sides have differed sharply over political aspects of the deal.
Ukrainian officials said on October 5 that French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had put strong pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to get the rebels to delay the elections.
The rebels did not say when exactly their polls will take place now.
They said, however, that their elections will be held only after Kyiv grants the territories they control "special status" within Ukraine that would give them the right to develop closer ties with Russia.
The statement also sought full amnesty for everyone who has taken part in the conflict.
The rebels also demanded a new vote in the Ukrainian parliament on constitutional amendments regarding elections that would first be agreed with the rebels themselves.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on Facebook that the rebel delay in holding elections will help Ukraine to get the rebellious territories back "in accordance with the Ukrainian legislation."
But Poroshenko will face strong resistance in parliament if he is perceived to be giving in to any demands made by Russia or the rebels.
The Minsk peace deal says that Russian forces and the militias are supposed to cede the 400-kilometer stretch of the border under their control a day after the polls are held.
But the rebels and Moscow argued that Ukraine would only regain its territorial integrity after Kyiv followed through on all the commitments it made in the February deal.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the rebels' decision "one more example of a flexible and constructive approach in the interests of the implementation of the Minsk agreements."
Russia denies sending troops or weapons into Ukraine to back the rebels, despite what Kyiv and NATO says is incontrovertible evidence of large-scale, direct Russian military involvement.
With reporting by AFP, UNIAN, Interfax, TASS and RIA