Poroshenko Confirms Rebels Have Withdrawn Heavy Weapons

This article originally appeared in The Guardian

The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, says pro-Russia rebels have withdrawn a significant amount of weaponry from the frontlines in eastern Ukraine, three weeks after a ceasefire deal was struck.

Attacks have fallen significantly, but accusations of continued violence on both sides show the fragility of the peace accord agreed in Minsk last month, which calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons from frontlines.

“There is a ceasefire, or there isn’t. It depends on how you look at it, Poroshenko said in a televised interview. “We can say that we managed to halt the offensive drive of the aggressor.”

“Ukraine has withdrawn the lion’s share of its rocket and heavy artillery systems. The Russian-backed fighters have also withdrawn a significant amount.”

While the Minsk agreements have been broadly observed along the frontlines in the past two weeks, Kiev has accused the rebels of continuing to fire on government positions and using the truce to regroup and rearm for a further offensive, a charge the rebels deny.

Poroshenko said 64 Ukrainian servicemen had been killed since the ceasefire was meant to come into force on 15 February. Nearly 6,000 people have been killed since the conflict between government troops and separatists erupted last April, the UN estimates.

Underlining continued tensions over the truce, Ukraine accused pro-Russia separatists on Monday of using mortars and a tank to fire on government positions near the eastern port of Mariupol in clashes that lasted several hours.

The militants fired on Ukraine’s positions and were attempting to “force our contingents from Shyrokyne”, a village about 10km (six miles) east of Mariupol on the Azov Sea coast, the headquarters of the army’s operations in the east said in a Facebook post.

The claims could not be immediately confirmed but would constitute a serious violation of the peace deal signed in the Belarus capital, Minsk.

Mariupol, a steel-making city of 500,000, is the biggest urban centre in the conflict zone still controlled by Kiev. The frontline runs through Shyrokyne.

Many Ukrainians fear that any new offensive by the rebels would target Mariupol because of its strategic location and economic importance. The port was hit by a rocket attack in January that killed at least 30 civilians.

Four Ukrainian soldiers were wounded in the latest clashes, according to military spokesman Oleg Sushinky.

International observers trying to monitor the ceasefire and weapons withdrawal have repeatedly complained that rebels are denying them access to outlying areas of Mariupol.

Meanwhile, Nato forces are preparing for a major exercise in the Baltics, where Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine war has jangled nerves.

US military officials said that deployment of some 3,000 troops had begun for the three-month Operation Atlantic Resolve. The exercise will see Nato forces working alongside their allies in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – former Soviet republics that are now members of the western alliance.

The United States also said on Monday that it had delivered more than 100 pieces of heavy military equipment to the Baltic states.

The deliveries are intended to “demonstrate resolve to President (Vladimir) Putin and Russia that collectively we can come together”, US Major General John R O’Connor told AFP as he oversaw the delivery of the equipment in the port of Riga.

According to Nato, Russia has used its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea province to significantly boost its military presence in the region.

“What we’ve seen is easy to describe as the militarisation of Crimea,” the alliance’s top commander for Europe, General Philip Breedlove, said in an interview with Ukrainian channel 1+1.

“They’ve brought an air capability, they’ve increased their capability to project sea power from there,” he said.

“Crimea has become very much a power projection platform,” he said in an interview broadcast in Ukraine on Sunday evening.

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