UNITED NATIONS

Security Council to hold emergency session on Ukraine

AFP

The UN Security Council will hold an emergency session to discuss the situation in Ukraine on Friday, exactly a year since Russian troops and pro-Moscow forces began seizing territory in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

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The seizure triggered the worst stand-off in Russian relations with the West since the Cold War

Diplomats at the UN said the Security Council's emergency session was called at the request of France and Germany.

Two representatives from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) will deliver a report on the situation on the ground before diplomats hold talks behind closed doors.

The shaky ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels appeared to be holding on Thursday as Ukraine's military said it had started pulling back heavy weapons from the front line. The withdrawal was called for in a peace plan that was to come into force on February 15 but which only took hold across the conflict zone in recent days – after pro-Russian rebels completed their seizure of the railway hub town of Debaltseve.

"Ukraine is today beginning the withdrawal of 100mm cannons from the frontline," the army said in a statement on Thursday.

"This is the first step in the pull-back of heavy weapons and will be carried out exclusively under the supervision and verification of the OSCE."

The withdrawal of arms is a key part of a peace deal negotiated earlier this month in the Belarus capital Minsk.

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that while there had been a reduction in fighting in recent days, the truce was still being broken.

"There are still violations... I wouldn't go so far as to call it a positive step," Psaki told reporters. "It's just a slight improvement."

An AFP photographer saw Ukrainian forces towing at least 15 cannons away from the front line around Debaltseve.

The arms withdrawal, which is meant to create a buffer zone between the two warring sides, is due to be completed within two weeks.

Rebels insist they have already pulled back the majority of their artillery, rocket-launchers and missile systems from some areas.

NATO: 'Stop supporting separatists'

While OSCE monitors have reported seeing some big guns heading away from the rebel lines, they say the warring sides have not provided information needed to determine what, if any, arms withdrawals have occurred.

Fighting has died down dramatically over the past few days. Ukraine's military said for the second day running that there were no fatalities among its soldiers but that four had been wounded.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg hailed the downturn in violence but kept up the pressure by calling for Moscow to pull out of Ukraine the weapons it is accused of sending in to the rebels.

"Russia has transferred in recent months over 1,000 pieces of equipment – tanks, artillery and advanced air defence systems," Stoltenberg said in Rome.

"They have to withdraw this equipment and they have to stop supporting separatists."

His words highlighted how tense relations between the West and Moscow have become since Russia's annexation of Crimea, a land grab that was rejected by the UN.

Addressing US lawmakers on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia and the pro-Moscow rebels had failed to meet the terms of the ceasefire and renewed warnings that Russia could face further sanctions.

But Moscow says any threats of new punishment are evidence the West is not interested in ensuring the success of the latest deal to end the fighting, which has killed more than 5,800 people since April 2014.

"Behind these calls lies the unwillingness of... the United States, the European Union, to seek the implementation of what was agreed," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Threat to gas supplies

Russia has also ratcheted up the pressure, by warning it could cut off gas supplies to Ukraine – and, by extension, to parts of the European Union.

That threat prompted the EU to invite the Russian and Ukrainian energy ministers to Brussels on Monday for talks on resolving the dispute. Ukraine's gas company Naftogaz confirmed it would attend the talks as part of a Ukrainian delegation.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini "touched on" the gas issue in a call with Lavrov, her office said in a brief statement.

The West says the best hope for a negotiated solution to the 10-month conflict lies with the truce, which last week won unanimous backing from the UN Security Council.

But breaches by rebel forces – especially their assault on Debaltseve, a strategic transport hub, and attacks on Ukrainian army positions near the port city of Mariupol – even after the ceasefire deal have exasperated Western powers.

The peace plan also details a series of subsequent steps including the start of discussions on handing over greater autonomy to the separatist regions and the re-establishment of Kiev's control over parts of the border with Russia that are now held by rebels.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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