Ukraine, pro-Russian rebels sign cease-fire deal

Self-proclaimed rebel leader of Luhansk, however, said his group still aims to break away from Kiev

Ukraine’s government and pro-Russian rebels on Friday signed a cease-fire deal to end nearly five months of fighting in eastern Ukraine, the parties said after talks in Minsk, Belarus’ capital.

The deal, which went into effect early Friday evening, aims to provide negotiators space for a more permanent settlement, though there are questions about whether the various factions on the ground will heed Kiev or Moscow.

“Human life is the highest value, and we must do everything possible and impossible to end the bloodshed and the suffering,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement posted on his website.

Separate announcements also came from representatives for Russia and the Moscow-backed rebels, as well as mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). 

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The deal focuses on 12 points and would include the withdrawal of heavy weapons from fighting areas, an OSCE representative said, but other details were not immediately confirmed. Poroshenko said that a prisoner exchange would begin Saturday and that international monitors would keep watch over the cease-fire.

Humanitarian aid to the battered Donbass region is also included in the deal, according to Kiev’s envoy, former president Leonid Kuchma.

The announcement of a cease-fire was expected after Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, discussed the outlines of a peace deal earlier this week. The timing of the deal suggests it could pre-empt a new round of sanctions against Russia, which European Union leaders ordered on Friday.

“The Russian presidential office welcomes the signing of the protocol in Minsk,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency. “Moscow hopes all the provisions of the document and the agreements reached will be thoroughly observed by the parties and that the negotiating process will continue until the crisis in Ukraine is fully resolved.”

Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops since mid-April in a conflict the United Nations estimates has killed nearly 2,600 people.

Russia vehemently denies charges that it has armed and supported the rebels for months and has disputed recent evidence from NATO that thousands of Russian troops as well as Russian military vehicles are in Ukraine. A NATO military officer told The Associated Press on Thursday that the ranks of Russian soldiers directly involved in the conflict have grown past NATO's earlier estimate of at least 1,000.

Rebel leaders of the separatist movement’s two major strongholds, Donetsk and Luhansk, confirmed they would abide by the cease-fire but indicated their continuing desire to split from the Western-backed government in Kiev.

“This doesn’t mean that our course for secession is over,” said Igor Plotnitsky, leader of the separatist Luhansk region. 

‘Protecting all allies’

Initial reports suggested the cease-fire has held in much of the southeast through Friday evening, with the exception of several explosions heard north of the city of Donetsk just minutes after the truce went into effect. Friday’s agreement came on the heels of a violent day in Donetsk as well as Mariupol, the crucial port city along the Sea of Azov where reporters heard heavy shelling Friday morning.

The rebel offensive in the city of 500,000, situated between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in March, followed two weeks of gains that have turned the tide of the war against Ukrainian forces. Until recently, Kiev appeared close to crushing the rebellion in the east.

Ukraine and the West say the rebel counterattack was spearheaded by regular Russian army units, a charge the Kremlin has vehemently denied. Ukraine has already lost about half its coastline, several major ports and untold billions in Black Sea mineral rights with Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Since Russia began pushing for a cease-fire in Ukraine, Kiev and its Western backers have expressed their trepidations that Moscow might use the stop in violence as cover while it continued to send arms and reinforcements across the porous border with Ukraine.

Putin, the prevailing wisdom holds, wants to see Ukraine radically federalized, with the Russian-majority east granted greater autonomy. Such a system would preclude pro-Western Kiev from steering the country toward EU and NATO membership, which Kiev has said it wants to join.

For his part, Poroshenko made a point of emphasizing that Friday's agreement was based on his own peace plan. He told reporters on Friday Ukraine was ready to grant a significant decentralization of power and economic freedom to the separatist regions as well as the right to use the language of their choice — Russian — and an amnesty.

But many analysts say the deal will in fact play into Putin’s hands if he is able to maneuver a lasting peace that hamstrings Ukraine's westward momentum. There were early signs the West would be willing to reward Moscow for its role in that process by lifting economic sanctions, which have been incrementally levied on Russia since it annexed Crimea.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking in Wales, said that “if certain processes get underway, we are prepared to suspend sanctions."

President Barack Obama, who has taken heat from some hawks for his unwillingness to confront Putin more forcefully, argued that the "only reason" the cease-fire deal had been struck at this moment was "because of both the sanctions that have already been applied and the threat of further sanctions, which are having a real impact on the Russian economy and have isolated Russia in a way that we have not seen in a very long time."

About the cease-fire, Obama said, "Obviously we are hopeful, but based on past experience [we are] also skeptical that in fact the separatists will follow through and the Russians will stop violating Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. So it has to be tested."

Just hours before the cease-fire was announced, NATO leaders said that the 28-member bloc approved the formation of a several-thousand-troop Rapid Response Force (RRF), a reaction to the crisis in Ukraine. NATO’s eastern and central members, especially those with large ethnic Russian populations, are concerned that Russia might target them next.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he wanted to “send a message that NATO protects all allies at all times."

But the RRF is not likely to be deployed to Ukraine, analysts say, because of the West’s unwillingness to confront a nuclear power like Russia in a country of limited geopolitical significance. Moscow’s commitment to destabilizing Ukraine, they say, will likely give it the upper hand as a permanent peace deal is negotiated.

With wire services

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