Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine postpone disputed elections
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Ukraine's pro-Russian insurgents in the separatist provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk said in a joint statement Tuesday that they were pushing back the elections in the east to next year in line with Western demands.
The chief negotiators of the two self-proclaimed "people's republics" said they had "agreed to postpone the (Donetsk) elections of October 18 and the (Lugansk) poll of November 1 until next year."
Their decision came four days after the leaders of Germany and France forced Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to sit down for direct negotiations in Paris aimed at saving a shaky truce in the 18 month war.
That meeting ended with French President Francois Hollande declaring that the rebels could not possibly organise internationally legitimate elections within such a short timeframe.
Kiev's pro-Western leader has also called the votes "fake" and demanded their cancellation.
Ukrainian officials said Monday that Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel put strong pressure on Putin -- who denies any involvement in the conflict -- to pressure the militia command to delay their vote.
"We examined the statements and recommendations of Merkel and Hollande that were issued after the summit," Donetsk negotiator Denis Pushilin and his Lugansk counterpart Vladislav Deinego said in the statement.
The two met Tuesday in the Belarussian capital Minsk -- the same location where Putin and Poroshenko agreed in February to find a way out one of Europe's bloodiest crises since the Balkans wars of the 1990s.
The insurgents did not say when they now intend to hold their polls.
But they pressed a series of demands on Kiev that will be difficult for Poroshenko to push through a Ukrainian parliament where nationalist forces play a strong role.
The two said their elections will be held only after Kiev assigns them "special status" within a unified Ukraine that has the right to develop closer diplomatic and trade relations with Russia.
The statement also sought full immunity from prosecution "for all participants to events in the Donetsk and Lugansk region" and a new vote in the Ukrainian parliament on constitutional amendments regarding elections that would first be agreed with the rebels themselves.
The date of the rebels' vote is vital because it also determines when exactly Ukraine can regain full control of its porous eastern border with Russia -- a frontier Kiev accuses the Kremlin of using to arm the revolt.
The February deal says that Russian forces and the militias are supposed cede the 400-kilometre (250-mile) stretch of the border under their control a day after the polls are held.
But the rebels and Moscow argued that Ukraine would only regain its territorial integrity after Kiev followed through on all the commitments in made in the February deal -- something Ukraine has so far failed to do.
The delay gives the warring sides time to find a political compromise that can put an end to fighting that has already claimed more than 8,000 lives and driven 1.5 million from their homes.