MINSK, Belarus – Negotiators in Ukrainian peace talks agreed early today to create a buffer zone to separate government troops and pro-Russia militants and withdraw heavy weapons and foreign fighters in order to ensure a stable truce in eastern Ukraine.
The deal reached by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the Moscow-backed rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe marks an effort to add substance to a cease-fire agreement that was signed on Sept. 5 but has been frequently broken by clashes.
The memorandum signed after hours of talks that dragged late into the night says the conflicting parties should stay strictly where they were Friday and make no attempts to advance.
Leonid Kuchma, a former Ukrainian president who represented the Kiev government in the talks, said the memorandum will be implemented within a day.
Under the terms of the deal, reached in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, each party must pull its artillery at least 9 miles back, setting up a buffer zone that would be 19 miles wide.
The longer-range artillery systems are to be pulled even farther back to make sure the parties can’t reach one another.
The deal also specifically bans flights by combat aircraft over the area of conflict and setting up new minefields.
“It should offer the population a chance to feel secure,” said Igor Plotnitskyi, the leader of rebels in the Luhansk region.
The rebels are located near the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine and also halfway to the city of Mariupol south of there on the coast, but their positions outside of these cities are not clear. Ukrainian government forces are at the airport in Donetsk but the location of their lines outside of that city is also unclear.
The memorandum also envisages the withdrawal of “all foreign armed units and weapons, as well as militants and mercenaries” – a diplomatic reference to Russians fighting alongside the rebels.
Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fueling the insurgency in eastern Ukraine with weapons and soldiers. Moscow has denied that, saying that Russians who joined the mutiny did so as private citizens.
Pressed to comment about the agreement on the withdrawal of foreign fighters, Russian Ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov, who represented Moscow in the talks, said that “those whom we call mercenaries are present on both sides.”
The negotiators, however, have left aside the most explosive issue – the future status of the rebel regions.
The Ukrainian crisis has pushed Russia-West relations to their lowest point since the Cold War. Faced with several rounds of Western sanctions that badly hurt the Russian economy, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has pushed for a peace deal that would ease Western pressure while protecting Moscow’s interests in Ukraine.
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