NEGOTIATORS in Ukrainian peace talks yesterday agreed to create a buffer zone between government troops and pro-Russian militants by halting their advances, pulling back heavy weapons and withdrawing foreign fighters in order to ensure a stable truce.
The deal reached by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the Moscow-backed rebels and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe marks an effort to add substance to a cease-fire agreement that was signed on 5 September but has been frequently broken by clashes.
The memorandum signed after hours of talks that dragged late into the night says that the conflicting parties should stay strictly where they were on Friday.
Leonid Kuchma, a former Ukrainian president who represented the Kiev government in the talks, said the memorandum will be implemented this weekend.
Under the terms of the deal, reached in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, each party must pull back short-range artillery at least nine miles, setting up a buffer zone that would be 19 miles wide.
The longer-range artillery systems are to be pulled even farther back to make sure the parties cannot reach one another.
The deal also bans flights by combat aircraft over the area of conflict and setting up new minefields.
“It should offer the population a chance to feel secure,” said Igor Plotnitskyi, the leader of rebels in the Luhansk region.
The rebels are located near the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine and the port city of Mariupol on the Sea Azov coast.
Ukrainian government forces are at the airport in Donetsk but the location of their lines outside of that city is also unclear.
The memorandum also envisages the withdrawal of “all foreign armed units and weapons, as well as militants and mercenaries” – a diplomatic reference to Russians fighting alongside the rebels.
Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fuelling the insurgency in eastern Ukraine with weapons and soldiers. Moscow has denied that, saying that Russians who joined the mutiny did so as private citizens.
The cease-fire that was declared on 5 September has been repeatedly violated. Yesterday Ukrainian national security council spokesman Volodymyr Polyoviy said about 20 rebels had been killed in clashes with Ukrainian forces over the past day, along with one Ukrainian serviceman.
In Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city, loud explosions were heard yesterday morning at a munitions factory.
As part of a compromise to end hostilities, the Ukrainian parliament last week passed a law giving a broad autonomy to the areas controlled by the rebels, including the power to hold local elections and form their own police force.
Alexander Zakharchenko, the rebel leader in Donetsk, said after the talks that Ukraine and the rebels have conflicting interpretations of the law and the talks should continue.