A raucous Ukrainian parliament on Friday extended by another year the self-rule of its two Russian-backed insurgent regions in a vote the Kremlin called "important".
The decision was also supported by Kiev's Western partners but bitterly opposed by hardcore Ukrainian nationalists who set off flares outside the chamber during a feisty debate held Thursday.
Deputies voted Friday by a 229 to 57 margin to extend "local self-government in individual districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions" once all Russian troops and arms are withdrawn from Ukraine's war-scarred east.
The measure is required because the initial three-year period of partial autonomy set in a moribund 2014 peace deal expires on October 18.
The legislation strikes at the heart of an intractable Ukrainian problem: putting an end to one of Europe's deadliest modern wars and reunifying the country while getting Russia to admit it is behind fighting in which more than 10,000 have died.
The pro-EU leaders who rose to power after a February 2014 revolution toppled a Kremlin-backed regime view the bloodshed as an effort by Russian President Vladimir Putin to continue exerting control over Kiev.
The Kremlin denies any involvement despite overwhelming eyewitness evidence of its tanks and troops crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border into the warzone since fighting broke out in April 2014.
- 'Occupied territories' -
The local self-government rule never technically went into effect in Lugansk and Donetsk. Both Western states and OSCE monitors back Kiev's assertion that thousands of Russia's troops and its weapons are still in the conflict zone.
But the provision is demanded by Moscow and viewed by some Western diplomats as a way of keeping alive sputtering peace negotiations periodically held in the Belarussian capital Minsk.
One of Ukraine's top representatives to the Minsk talks pleaded with deputies to adopt the bill in an emotional address that came in the heat of a passionate parliamentary session full of pushing and shoving.
"We cannot free our occupied territories only through military means," Iryna Gerashchenko said while about 100 nationalists rallied outside the building.
"We have to unite the diplomatic tracks with the military ones," she said.
"So our goal is to create this synergy -- to beef up our military and beef up our diplomacy," Gerashchenko said.
The US envoy to the Ukrainian negotiations said the vote "shows Ukraine (is) taking tough steps for peace."
"Hope Russia now acts to make peace -- time to end conflict," Kurt Volker tweeted.
And a European diplomatic source in Kiev told AFP that parliament's failure to adopt the self-rule extension would have opened up the "risk that Russia will abandon the negotiations and that Ukraine will be held responsible".
- 'Very important bill' -
Russia's initial response was cautious but seemingly welcoming.
"This is a very important bill," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow.
"Of course, the expiration of the old law (without a replacement) would have sparked everyone's concern," said Peskov.
The Donetsk representative to the peace talks also toned down his usual vitriolic attacks on Kiev after the self-rule legislation was passed.
"Ukraine was forced to extend this special status law because Russia, Germany and the United States demanded it," Denis Pushylin said in a statement issued on one of the insurgents' websites.
Partial autonomy would allow the Russian-backed regions to set up their own police forces and even court systems.
Lawmakers also gave initial backing to legislation proclaiming the war a Russian "occupation" in which Moscow finances the fighters and supports "terrorist activity".
The 233 to 32 decision comes close to enacting into law what Kiev has been arguing repeatedly for years.
© 2017 AFP