New flashpoint in east Ukraine; Russia backs arms pullback

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed that both Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels pull back their heavy weapons from a previously agreed-upon division line.

By (AP)

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Published: Fri 23 Jan 2015, 1:17 AM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 8:57 PM

Separatist forces in eastern Ukraine deployed large quantities of arms and manpower on Wednesday to an emerging flashpoint, undermining hopes for a new peace initiative. Ukraine’s president cut short a visit to Switzerland to deal with the unfolding crisis.

Earlier in the day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed that both Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels pull back their heavy weapons from a previously agreed-upon division line to help reduce hostilities. Lavrov’s remarks received nominal approval from his Ukrainian counterpart, Pavlo Klimkin.

While Lavrov urged measures to contain unfolding unrest, he said nothing about rebels surrendering the territory they acquired in violation of September’s peace deal. Ukraine says the separatists have overstepped agreed-upon boundaries by 500 square kilometres.

Ukrainian President Pedro Poroshenko, who headed home early after speaking at an economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, strongly urged Russia to withdraw its forces from eastern Ukraine and seal the border to stop the flow of troops and weapons.

On the ground, the Russian-backed separatists sent large amounts of weaponry all day on Wednesday toward a tense checkpoint area northwest of the rebel-held city of Luhansk — 50 kilometres west of the Russian border — prompting Poroshenko’s surprise return home.

Lavrov, who was to meet with his Ukrainian, French and German counterparts in Berlin later Wednesday, said the proposed withdrawal of artillery should help end the surge in fighting to control Donetsk’s airport and other flashpoints.

Moscow has denied Ukrainian and Western claims that it provides manpower and arms to the separatists but has acknowledged that some Russians have joined the insurgents. Yet the sheer amount of sophisticated heavy weaponry in insurgent hands is widely seen in the West as irrefutable evidence of Russia’s direct involvement.

Speaking during a visit to Kiev, US Army Europe commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said the amount of Russian equipment being provided to separatists had doubled between the signing of a ceasefire deal in September and the year’s end.

“It is very clear from the capabilities that the proxies (rebels) have used against Ukrainian security forces, the type of artillery, modern equipment, the amount of ammunition that has been used,” Hodges said. “It is irrefutable that they are getting direct support from Russia.”

The now-destroyed Donetsk airport has been the focus of fighting for months because of its strategic location and symbolic value, part of fighting in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 4,700 people since April.

Northwest of Luhansk, the second largest rebel-held city, the Ukrainian government and the rebels were fighting over two checkpoints on a strategic highway. Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said one of those positions, Checkpoint 31, had been abandoned but operations were underway to retake it.

Around midday, an AP reporter saw nine Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers and six anti-tank cannons moving near the eastern Ukrainian town of Perevalsk. A rebel militiaman with the convoy, who declined to provide his name, said the armament heading in the direction of Checkpoint 31.

Along the same road, the AP saw four Grad multiple rockets launchers accompanied by four trucks carrying ammunition and 15 pristine-looking tanks, also heading toward the checkpoint.

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebyinis says separatist forces had seized 500 square kilometres of territory since the division line was agreed upon at September talks in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

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