Ukraine military has begun heavy weapons withdrawal – military spokesman

Kiev troops have started the long-promised withdrawal of heavy weapons from eastern Ukraine, a step required by the fragile ceasefire agreement signed earlier this month. The rebels have been criticizing their opponents for stalling the disengagement.

“In accordance with the agreement reached in Minsk on February 12, today Ukraine begins withdrawal of 100mm artillery from the disengagement line. It's the first step towards withdrawal of heavy weapons, which will only be carried out under OSCE monitoring and verification,” the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in a statement.

The movement of artillery pieces is already underway and should take about a day, a Ukrainian military spokesperson said. The hardware will be pulled back 25km from the disengagement line.

READ MORE: Kiev's West-backed 'ludicrous demands' may derail ceasefire – Moscow

The order to withdraw heavy weapons was given on Thursday after the Ukrainian military confirmed that they had not been shot at for a day. No combat casualties have been reported for a second day in a row.

“If there are any attempts to launch an offensive, the withdrawal schedule will be changed. The Ukrainian troops are fully prepared to defend the country,” the statement added.

Meanwhile rebel forces are continuing to pull back their heavy weapons, as they have been doing for days.

“Today at 10am, an OSCE-monitored movement of our columns commenced. They recorded this movement,” rebel spokesman Eduard Basurin said.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) said it wants to withdraw 180 artillery pieces and 17 rocket launchers on Thursday. Previously it withdrew 400 artillery pieces, including some 320 captured from the Ukrainian troops after their retreat from Debaltsevo.

READ MORE: The Minsk ceasefire deal, point by point

The rebels have already withdrawn 90 percent of heavy weaponry from the disengagement line, their leader, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, said Thursday.

The rebels voiced concerns over lack of similar moves by Kiev, suspecting it of foul play. Kiev insisted that it would keep its weapons in their positions until at least two days are spent without a single shot.

Moscow criticized Kiev's stubbornness, saying the condition it voiced was unrealistic.

Under the Minsk agreement both sides must pull their heavy weapons back from the disengagement line to form a buffer zone of 50 to 140km, depending on the type of weapon. The process is expected to be complete by March 1. OSCE is tasked with verifying the withdrawal.

Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor of the OSCE special monitoring mission to Ukraine, told RT on Thursday that both sides of the Ukrainian conflict are finally withdrawing their heavy weaponry from the frontline, stressing the move is “something that they have not done before.”

“We see now mutual actions towards compliance within the Minsk arrangements. The OSCE special monitoring mission knows that both sides have announced that they will be moving hardware away from the frontline,” Hug said. “This afternoon, the government of Ukraine has done that as well. We welcome this mutual step now from both sides to start working towards utterance to their commitments.”