East Ukraine rebels ready to pull back weapons under 100mm calibre from front line

Officials from the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk people's republics in eastern Ukraine say they are ready to pull back their smaller weapons. Armored vehicles and artillery under 100mm could be moved to three kilometres from the front line.

"To show our commitment to the Minsk agreements, we are ready to make the next step towards peace. For that, [we are ready] to pull back our units with tanks and armored vehicles, equipped with weapons under 100mm calibre, to at least three kilometres (1.9 miles) from the front line,” a statement from the rebel forces said, as cited by RIA Novosti.

However the statement stressed that the pullback of such weapons might not apply to several "problem areas."

Zones where machinery cannot be withdrawn at present include areas north of Donetsk and Debaltsevo, the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic Aleksandr Zakharchenko said on Saturday. Such "problem areas" make up "some 10 to 12 percent of the length of the ceasefire line," he added.

"The only exception" for the unilateral smaller weaponry withdrawal for the Lugansk rebel forces, is in the region of the Schastie village, Vladislav Deinego who represented the anti-government forces at the Minsk talks, said on Saturday. He added that the "remaining machinery and weapons" could be pulled back from that area after the Ukrainian side follows suit in other areas.

READ MORE: The Minsk ceasefire deal, point by point

The Donetsk forces were waiting for a response from Kiev, the DNR's representative Denis Pushilin said, adding that the actual launch of the withdrawal could begin following a statement from the government. The OSCE is expected to monitor the three-kilometer pullback zone, Pushilin added, mentioning that the organization had been notified of these intentions.

Meanwhile, according to rebel commanders, Kiev has intensified fire in the Donbass area and is pulling heavy weaponry to the front line. “The ceasefire violations and criminal actions of Ukrainian security forces speak for Kiev’s build-up for active hostility,” DNR spokesman Eduard Basurin told reporters on Saturday, as cited by RIA Novosti.

The latest unilateral step from the anti-government forces comes despite previous violations by Kiev, when both sides agreed to withdraw heavy weapons. Certain Ukrainian volunteer units, such as the Aidar battalion refused their government's orders to leave their positions in the conflict zones, with more heavy fighting having erupted, including the battle in Shirokino.

READ MORE: Ukraine’s Right Sector rejects Minsk deal, calls for renewed offensive in E. Ukraine

In one of its June reports, OSCE special mission said that it observed "more ceasefire violations" in the area around the Donetsk airport. The monitoring "was restricted by third parties," the OSCE said. The spike in violence was followed by a statement from Ukraine's ultranationalist Right Sector group, which said it once again rejected the Minsk ceasefire agreement and called on President Petro Poroshenko to renew the military offensive in the country's east.

A removal of heavy weapons with calibre over 100mm, including large artillery, heavy mortar and powerful rocket systems was part of the February peace deal, brokered in Minsk by the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.

According to the agreement signed by the so-called "contact group," the pullout of hardware from the front line was to be completed by March 1. However, a number of the violations have been reported in the conflict region of eastern Ukraine.

READ MORE: 122mm artillery banned under Minsk peace deal fired in E.Ukraine – OSCE

There are other points of the peace memorandum signed in Minsk that have yet to be implemented by the Ukrainian side. Apart from the comprehensive ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, which includes the withdrawal of weapons and the exchange of prisoners, the document also mentioned that Kiev and the rebels would negotiate the terms for future local elections to be held in rebel-held areas. This has yet to occur.

According to the deal, Kiev is also expected to implement wide ranging constitutional reform by the end of the year, which would decentralize the Ukrainian political system. 

On Friday, leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany called for a "strict respect of engagements" of the peace deal, AFP reported. The first four-way talks in over two months lasted for more than two hours and focused on finally resolving the crisis, the agency said, citing sources in Kiev.