KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian officials and Russia-backed separatists both announced Tuesday they have begun pulling back weapons in Ukraine’s war-torn east, a step they hope unblocks a stalled peace process.
The reports follow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s visit to the area, where he confronted armed veterans who came there to try to hamper the weapons pullback.
Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko told Ukrainian media that the much-anticipated disengagement between government troops and separatists kicked off earlier in the day.
Across the front line, Rodion Miroshnik, a separatist official in the Luhansk region, was also quoted as saying the pullback was underway.
The heavy weapons disengagement in eastern Ukraine, which was delayed for weeks, is seen as the final hurdle before the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany can get together to discuss a peace settlement for the conflict that has claimed more than 13,000 lives since 2014.
The commitment of Zelenskiy’s government to pull back heavy weapons in the east has triggered streets protests in the capital of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. Many Ukrainians fear the move opens the door to concessions to Russia, which has been funding the rebels and regularly sending its troops across the border.
Russia denies these claims.
Vladislav Surkov, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, told the Tass news agency that the pullback was “good news” and said the much-anticipated summit could take place if a weapons pullback in another location goes ahead as well.
Representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the rebels met in the Belarusian capital Minsk on Tuesday to talk about further steps. OSCE representative Martin Sajdik, who mediated the so-called Contact Group talks, said after the meeting that the disengagement in another area near the village of Petrovske was discussed.
Natalia Nikanorova, a rebel envoy to the talks, said the parties reached agreement on a date for the pullback in Petrovske but decided not to make it public for now.