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Ukraine’s Chief Says Most Russian Forces Gone, Vows More Local Powers

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Russia has withdrawn about 70 percent of the armed groups it sent into eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko said Wednesday, quoting his nation’s intelligence sources.

“That gives us a real hope that peace efforts have good prospects,” Poroshenko said in televised remarks before parliament, referring to a cease-fire agreement reached last week.

The truce brought relief from a five-month conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists — backed, Ukraine and NATO have said, by Russian mercenaries and later Russian troops — that has claimed more than 3,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in the east.

Poroshenko said that about 700 Ukrainian servicemen had been freed by the separatists, with about 500 more expected to be released in the next few days.

Poroshenko also said a bill would be submitted to parliament next week granting more powers to local authorities in Ukraine in an attempt to answer the demands of separatists in the east.

“I may agree that most likely we will not be delighted with the personalities of local lawmakers to be elected” in some areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east, he said. “But is it better if policy be enforced by bursts of automatic fire and Grad (missile system) salvos rather than by ballot papers?”

Nonetheless, he insisted that “Ukraine didn’t make any concessions on the issues of its territorial integrity” when it agreed to the truce.

“I stress it once again: Now the war of independence is going on, no less, no more, for the existence of our state and we will surrender the issues of our sovereignty or independence or territorial integrity to no one,” he said. And despite expressing hope for the peace process, he added: “I will be frank, God alone knows how long the cease-fire will last.”

Though the truce had largely been observed, Ukrainian military spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko said Wednesday that “terrorists and Russian military carried out 20 provocations and shooting attacks” on Ukrainian forces over the previous 24 hours.

Poroshenko referred to Russia as “the military might No. 1 in Europe, whose forces have been constantly undergoing modernization in the last 10 to 15 years (and) possess the most modern and the most perfect weaponry today.”

“Unfortunately this is a lasting military threat,” he said. “It will not go away even if the current crisis is resolved in the nearest times. We need to learn to live in such conditions.”

The Russian threat may remain in force “not for months or years but even for dozens of years,” he said, suggesting not only that Ukraine should continue to build up and rearm its armed forces but to erect more effective fortifications on the border with Russia.

Three new lines of defense are already being set up on the approaches to Mariupol, the second-largest industrial city in the Donetsk region along the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian government and NATO say Russian troops crossed the border near Mariupol to back up separatists during a fierce battle outside the city in the days leading up to the cease-fire.

Reflecting the theme raised by Poroshenko about the threat from Ukraine’s neighbor, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that his nation was planning to develop new weapon systems, including strategic nuclear arms.

“We are doing it only as a response measure,” Putin said in televised remarks speaking at a meeting with a group of the country’s arms manufacturers. “We won’t get ourselves drawn into (an arms race).”

A Ukrainian political expert said Wednesday that the truce most probably will last through Ukrainian parliamentary elections planned for Oct. 26.

AFP Photo/Philippe Desmazes

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Ukrainian President Warns Fight Against Pro-Russia Gunmen Not Over

By Sergei L. Loiko and Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine will never cede its strategic port of Mariupol to Russia, President Petro Poroshenko vowed Monday during a visit to the latest city in the gun sights of pro-Russia separatists.

In a defiant speech to workers at the Ilyich Mariupol metal works, the president warned that the 5-month-old conflict is far from over and ordered government troops to shore up their defenses around the city that is home to 500,000.

While major fighting has mostly subsided since the government and separatist leaders agreed to a cease-fire on Friday, a Ukrainian military spokesman in Kiev, the capital, said the pro-Russia gunmen had violated it at least five times over the weekend.

“We will do our best to achieve peace but we will be getting ready to defend our country,” Poroshenko told the hard-hat audience in remarks carried on national television. “As the commander in chief of the armed forces I have given full orders to strengthen the defenses of Mariupol.”

Poroshenko commended the military for halting the advance of Russian tanks on Mariupol that began two weeks ago. Poroshenko accused Russia of carrying out “a full-scale invasion” when two columns of Kremlin armor and troops entered southeastern Ukraine along the Sea of Azov and rolled over the town of Novoazovsk before opening an artillery barrage against Mariupol.

Shortly after the onslaught, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Poroshenko agreed on the need for a cease-fire and their representatives proclaimed one after negotiations Friday in the Belarus capital of Minsk. The 12-point plan also calls for opening peace talks and for an exchange of prisoners.

The release of captured fighters and others detained during the conflict was proceeding slowly, said Vladimir Ruban, a retired general with the nongovernmental organization mediating the exchange process.

“The government side has complicated the process with numerous bureaucratic obstacles,” said Ruban, head of the Detainees Liberation Center. “In recent days we have facilitated the exchange of only 41 of Ukraine’s soldiers and officers for nine so-called separatists.”

More than 650 Ukrainian servicemen remain in separatist custody in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine, Ruban said.

The separatists complained Monday that they still didn’t have lists of the prisoners held by Kiev authorities.

Leonid Baranov, a security official of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said on the separatist leadership’s website that their side was still holding more than 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers captive.

“Kiev says that they are holding 200-300 of our self-defense members, but there are no exact lists at this stage,” Baranov said, adding that about 1,000 separatists and local residents who support them are missing and feared to be in Ukrainian government detention.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that helped broker the Ukraine cease-fire last week told a news conference in Geneva that he held out dim hopes of it lasting.

“We want to give it a chance,” said Didier Burkhalter. But he said he was “not optimistic at all.”

The European Union was due to expand its list of Russian officials, private citizens, and businesses to be targeted with sanctions for their alleged roles in fomenting the Ukraine crisis, which the United Nations said Monday has taken more than 3,000 lives.

In another expression of little confidence in the shaky cease-fire, European Commission President Herman van Rompuy said the new sanctions could be rolled back if the 3-day-old agreement does hold.

Before his address to the metal workers, Poroshenko vowed that the government is prepared to defend Mariupol at all costs.

“We will give away this piece of our land to no one!” he wrote on his Facebook page as he entered the front-line city.

AFP Photo

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Ukraine And Pro-Russian Rebels Agree Ceasefire

By Tatiana Kalinovskaya and Amelie Herenstein

Minsk (AFP) — Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels signed a ceasefire Friday in their five month conflict, which has plunged relations between Russia and the West into their worst crisis since the Cold War.

“A preliminary protocol to the ceasefire agreement has been signed in Minsk. This protocol should enter into force on Friday,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on his official Twitter account.

OSCE representatives mediating the talks in the Belarussian capital said the deal would take effect at 1500 GMT. Rebels confirmed this.

The deal hammered out in Minsk, Belarus, followed a lightning rebel counter-offensive in southeastern Ukraine that Western powers say was spearheaded by regular Russian troops, raising fears of a wider confrontation on Europe’s eastern flank.

It was not immediately clear whether the truce would be enough to stave off a threatened new round of Western sanctions against Russia over claims — which Moscow denies — that it is stirring up war in the former Soviet state.

In the tense hours leading up to the deal, fighting raged on the edge of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, the latest flashpoint in a conflict that has claimed around 2,600 lives since mid-April and driven more than half a million people from their homes.

There are also numerous questions that remain unanswered over the longterm viability of a peace deal.

The ceasefire could leave the political status of Ukraine’s economically-vital east uncertain and expose Poroshenko to charges from some in Ukraine that he has surrendered to Russian pressure.

Rebel leaders who have been battling Kiev’s rule since April — soon after Russian troops seized control of the Crimea region in Ukraine — also say they remain set on their goal of splitting from Kiev’s rule.

Another stumbling block to resolving the conflict is that Kiev insists on Russian troops withdrawing from Ukrainian territory, while Moscow denies it has any troops in the country.

“The peace plan must include a ceasefire, the withdrawal of the Russian army, bandits and terrorists, and the re-establishment of the border,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a cabinet meeting.

Yatsenyuk also said the deal would have to be supported by the United States and European Union as Kiev could “not manage with Russia on our own.”

– Rapid reaction force –

According to a seven-point ceasefire plan unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week after telephone talks with Poroshenko, both sides must halt “offensive operations,” while government troops must retreat from much of the eastern industrial regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.

The deal came as NATO leaders reaffirmed unanimous backing for Ukraine at a two-day summit which has focused largely on Russia’s new expansionist threat.

They agreed to set up a rapid reaction force as part of efforts to reassure allies rattled by the Ukrainian crisis and rising Islamic extremism.

EU and U.S. officials had earlier said that further sanctions would be announced in response to a major escalation of Moscow’s military support for the rebels.

But British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that the West could “look at lifting sanctions off” if the truce is sustained.

Poroshenko had vowed after his May election to crush the rebellion. That plan appeared to be on the brink of success until late last month when rebels — or what NATO reports were at least 1,000 Russian soldiers with tanks — began to deal a series of bloody defeats to Ukrainian forces.

The Kremlin accuses the Western military alliance of concocting the evidence of Russian troop movements in order to expand its own presence along Russia’s western frontier.

On the ground, “the situation is quite tense,” said a fighter with the pro-Kiev volunteer Azov Battalion who identified himself only as “Zhivchick.” He said there had been attacks by rebels on several checkpoints early Friday.

– ‘Safe zone’ –

AFP correspondents also reported overnight shelling that killed five civilians in the main rebel bastion of Donetsk, a city that government forces had all but encircled until being beaten back by separatists last week

The deal could leave the rebels — fighting what they claim is anti-Russian discrimination by Poroshenko and his more nationalist government — in effective control of an economically important region that accounts for one-sixth of Ukraine’s population and a whopping quarter percent of its exports.

The Kremlin account of the ceasefire plan said it requires both sides to halt offensive actions and for “Ukrainian armed forces units to withdraw to a distance that would make it impossible to fire on populated areas.”

The blueprint also establishes a “safe zone” that one rebel negotiator said should enable the militias to hold on to territories stretching to the very edges of the two separatist districts.

It also calls for a prisoner swap and for observers from the OSCE European security group to monitor the porous border.

This story has been updated.

AFP Photo/Francisco Leong

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Kremlin Says Putin Conquest Vow On Ukraine ‘Taken Out Of Context’

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

Ukrainian security officials accused Russia of sending more troops and equipment into eastern Ukraine as controversy ensued Tuesday over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reported boast that he could conquer Kiev in two weeks if he wanted.

A Kremlin spokesman lashed out at European Commission President Jose Manuel Borroso, the reported source of Putin’s bellicose vow, saying the Russian leader’s words were taken out of context and that disclosure of his conversation with Borroso was “beyond the bounds of diplomatic practices.”

“If that was really done, it looks not worthy of a serious political figure,” Putin aide Yuri Ushakov told the Itar-Tass news agency after European newspapers reported Borroso’s disclosure to a weekend meeting of European Union leaders. “Irrespective of whether these words were pronounced or not, this quote was taken out of context and had a very different meaning.”

According to Italy’s La Repubblica and the British tabloid Daily Mail, Borroso reported to the EU leaders in Brussels on a telephone conversation he had with Putin just prior to their gathering Saturday.

“If I want to, I can take Kiev in a fortnight,” Putin reportedly told Borroso in the conversation, in which he also was said to repeat denials that Russia has armed forces on its neighbor’s territory.

Last week, NATO released satellite images of Russian tanks and other armored vehicles rolling into separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine. The Western military alliance also said there were at least 1,000 Russian troops in the area when the previously peaceful town of Novoazovsk was overrun a week ago, opening a new front in the 5-month-old battle between the pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian government forces.

At his daily briefing in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, Col. Andriy Lysenko of the National Security and Defense Council said more Russian troops had been spotted in the separatist strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Convoys flying white flags signaling a humanitarian mission and sporting signs reading “Children” crossed a bridge into the village of Rozdolne, where four trucks approached Ukrainian troops, Lysenko said.

“Armed people jumped out of the trucks and opened fire at Ukrainian servicemen,” Lysenko said. “Large-scale combat started.”

Russian armed forces continue to build manpower and military equipment in the occupied areas, Lysenko said, noting recent encounters between Ukrainian troops and Russian forces in Donetsk, Luhansk, and a broad array of smaller towns and villages between the rebel-held city centers and the Sea of Azov.

“According to our operational data, there are no fewer than four (Russian) battalion-tactical groups in Ukraine,” Lysenko said, estimating that each comprised 400 men.

The buildup of Russian forces on Ukrainian territory has forced the government to revise its strategy from countering an insurgency to confront what is now an attack by a foreign invader, Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey said on his Facebook page.

“This is our Great Patriotic War,” he wrote, alluding to the Soviet Union’s costly victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

AFP Photo/Maxim Shipenkov

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