Ukraine signs ceasefire deal with pro-Russian separatists
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Envoys for the Ukrainian authorities and pro-Russian rebels have agreed to a ceasefire from 6pm (3pm GMT) on Friday at talks mediated by Russia, the European Union and OSCE in Belarus.
"Representatives of Ukraine and Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic signed a ceasefire protocol from 6pm on Friday," the Twitter account of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic said.
The Organisation for Co-operation and Security and Europe's envoy to Minsk confirmed the warring parties had signed an agreement declaring a ceasefire from 6pm Ukrainian time (3pm GMT) on Friday, including a prisoner exchange, humanitarian aid and the withdrawal of heavy weapons.
A Reuters correspondent reported hearing three explosions shortly after the truce was due to come into force near Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city. However, rebel fighters there said they had received orders to cease fire.
Speaking at a NATO summit in Wales largely dedicated to the crisis, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described Friday's agreement as a "preliminary protocol" and said he had ordered government troops to halt their fire at 6pm.
He said 12 steps had been agreed to bring peace and stability to the mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, with a concrete timetable for implementation.
"We are expecting, in the very near future, the release of hostages – most probably it will happen tomorrow," he said.
Poroshenko added that Ukraine was ready to grant a significant decentralisation of power and economic freedom to the regions as well as the right to use the language of their choice and an amnesty as part of a political settlement.
While separatist leaders welcomed the ceasefire, one of them maintained his demands for independence from Kiev. "This doesn't mean that our course for secession is over',' Igor Plotnitsky, leader of the separatist Luhansk region, told news agencies.
Military gains in recent days, including along the Azov Sea coast, mean the rebels are in a strong position as the ceasefire takes effect.
"Going into political negotiations, the separatists are going to be on a very good footing," said FRANCE 24's Kiev correspondent Gulliver Cragg. "Ultimately, I think they will do what Vladimir Putin tells them, but it makes sense for them to start with a negotiating position that is very radical and that is still demanding independence."
Although many Ukrainians want a settlement to end nearly five months of bloody conflict, Cragg said solutions offering too much power to autonomous regions – such as authority to stop integration with the European Union – would be unpopular.
"Concessions along the lines of Ukraine losing part of its territory are out of the question for most Ukrainians," Cragg added.
In a bid to maintain pressure on the pro-Russian side, European Union ambassadors agreed stronger sanctions against Russia on Friday over its involvement in the war in Ukraine. The measures are to be implemented on Monday, diplomats said.
However, the sanctions could be suspended if the ceasefire held and if Moscow withdrew its troops from Ukraine, diplomats said.
The sanctions tighten existing measures imposed in July, targeting more individuals with travel bans and asset freezes, as well as tightening access to capital markets for Russian oil and defence companies.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, REUTERS)