Ukraine’s military and separatist fighters have both said they are withdrawing artillery from the front line in the country’s restive east — a delayed move that could indicate that a cease-fire meant to take effect on Feb. 15 is finally taking hold.
Kiev said that while it was pulling heavy weapons back, it reserves the right to reverse the decision in the event of an attack by rebel forces. Pro-Russian combatants had already begun pulling back two days ago, but Ukraine’s defense ministry initially delayed reciprocal measures, arguing that fighting had not yet ceased.
However, the army reported no combat fatalities at the front for a second straight day on Thursday — the first time no troops have been killed since long before the French- and German-brokered truce was meant to take effect.
The withdrawal of artillery was point two of a Feb. 12 peace agreement reached in the Belarus capital, Minsk, aimed at ending the yearlong conflict. The pullback, though delayed, implies an acknowledgment that point one — the cease-fire itself — is being observed.
"Today Ukraine has begun the withdrawal of 100-millimeter guns from the line of confrontation," the military said in a statement, adding that the step would be monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
"The Ukrainian side demands a full cease-fire and immediate implementation of the Minsk agreement by all signatories. In the event of any attempted offensive, the schedule for withdrawal can be reviewed," the military statement said. "Ukrainian forces are fully prepared to defend the country."
Journalists in rebel-held Donetsk said they had not heard a single artillery explosion throughout the night, contrasting with the days immediately after the truce agreement when a continuation of the violence was observed.
Both sides alleged violations of the cease-fire agreement. Fighting raged around the strategically important town of Debaltseve, where the rebels said the truce did not apply.
A subsequent rebel advance led to one of the biggest battles of a war that has killed more than 5,600 people, resulting in Debaltseve’s capture by pro-Russian fighters.
In the days after its troops were driven from the town, Kiev maintained that it believed the rebels were reinforcing for another advance, particularly expressing fear for the city of Mariupol, a port of 500,000 people.
Meanwhile, Kiev and its allies continue to point the finger at Moscow for inflaming tensions and arming the rebel groups — a charge Russia has denied. Western countries have threatened to impose new economic sanctions on Moscow if separatists advance further into territory the Kremlin calls New Russia.
Moscow said Thursday the threats of more sanctions were cover for Western efforts to undermine the truce. "It's an attempt to ... distract attention from the necessity to fulfill the conditions of the Minsk agreements," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Underscoring the diplomatic reverberations the conflict in Ukraine continues to have across Europe, Putin warned on Wednesday that Russia would halt gas supplies to Ukraine if it did not receive advance payment, raising the possibility of onward deliveries to other countries in Europe being disrupted for the fourth time in a decade.
Criticizing Ukraine for cutting off gas to eastern regions where separatists have risen up against Kiev's rule, the Russian president said: "Imagine these people will be left without gas in winter. Not only that there is famine ... It smells of genocide."
Putin said he hoped there would be no Russian supply cuts but warned that Europe was dependent on Ukraine's "financial discipline."
Europe received around 147 billion cubic meters of Russian gas last year — or around a third of its total needs — with roughly 40 percent shipped via Ukraine.
Kiev and Moscow have argued over gas supplies and pricing for the past year, deepening a rift in ties between the neighbors.
Al Jazeera and wire services