Negotiators reach deal on weapons withdrawal in east Ukraine

AP News
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Posted: Sep 29, 2015 5:24 PM

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reached a long-awaited agreement late Tuesday on the withdrawal of tanks and other weapons from the frontline in eastern Ukraine.

"This is a document that opens a path to peace, a path to an end of violence and attacks," Russian negotiator Azamat Kulmukhametov said.

The deal supplements a broad agreement signed in February aimed at ending the conflict between the Western-aligned Ukrainian government and Russia-backed rebels. Many of its provisions remain unimplemented.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, who negotiated the February agreement, are meeting in Paris on Friday to try to push forward a political settlement for eastern Ukraine, where the fighting has killed more than 8,000 people since it began in April 2014.

To lay the groundwork for that meeting, their foreign ministers met in Berlin on Sept. 12 and afterward expressed hope that the agreement on withdrawing weapons could be signed within days, but the talks dragged on for two weeks.

The cease-fire declared as part of the February agreement was regularly violated by both sides until they declared a new truce on Sept. 1, which has largely held.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday told The Associated Press the latter is a positive sign which proves a "possibility of progress" on other provisions of international agreements.

The NATO leader, who spoke at the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York, singled out Russia's support for separatists in the east of Ukraine as the "main challenge" to putting an end to the conflict. He also expressed concern that separatists' plans to hold local elections in defiance of the Ukrainian government might derail the full implementation of the peace accord.

The deal reached Tuesday in Minsk, Belarus, by the so-called Contact Group calls for tanks, artillery and also mortars up to 120 mm to be pulled back at least 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the frontline, OSCE negotiator Martin Sajdik said.

He said the withdrawal will begin after the deal is signed by rebel leaders and will take 39 days to complete. Rebel representatives at the talks said their leaders should sign it on Wednesday.

The OSCE will monitor the withdrawal of the weapons, Sajdik said.

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Alina Heineke in New York contributed to this report.