NEWPORT, Wales: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the main pro-Russian rebel leader said they would both order cease-fires Friday, provided that an agreement is signed on a new peace plan to end the five-month war in Ukraine’s east.
The breakthrough came after a week in which the pro-Moscow separatists scored major victories with what Western nations say is the open support of thousands of Russian troops.
Speaking on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Wales, Poroshenko said the cease-fire would be conditional on a planned meeting going ahead in Minsk Friday of envoys from Ukraine, Russia and Europe’s OSCE security watchdog.
“At 1400 local time, provided the [Minsk] meeting takes place, I will call on the General Staff to set up a bilateral cease-fire and we hope that the implementation of the peace plan will begin tomorrow,” he said.
Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the main rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a statement his men would also order a cease-fire, from one hour later, provided that Kiev’s representatives signed up to a peace plan at the Minsk meeting.
There have been local agreements to hold fire, for example during the recovery of bodies from a Malaysian airliner shot down over rebel territory in July, but Thursday’s announcements were the first time the two sides have called for a full truce.
Rebels still expressed skepticism. Oleg Tsaryov, a senior rebel official, told Reuters the separatist truce would depend on the government providing guarantees, “because in the past we had some cease-fire agreements Poroshenko didn’t honor.”
A source close to Zakharchenko said government forces bombarded Donetsk within 15 minutes of Poroshenko’s announcement of the cease-fire plan: “We’ll see how the talks go tomorrow, but it won’t be easy. All this talk of truce amid more and more shelling.”
The truce would be monitored by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The announcements come a day after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin put forward a seven-point peace plan, which would end the fighting in Ukraine’s east, bring in outside monitors and aid, while leaving rebels in control of their territory.
To keep the pressure up on Russia, a White House official attending the NATO summit said the United States was preparing a new round of economic sanctions, but progress toward a truce could halt new European financial sanctions that EU leaders had been expected to agree Friday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that while NATO members wanted a political solution and would talk to Russia about this, “We’re also prepared to lend weight to our political demands by imposing further sanctions.”
On ground, there is no sign of a halt in fighting in the east, where rebels have rapidly advanced in the past week, backed by what Kiev and NATO say is the support of thousands of Russian troops with artillery and tanks. Moscow denies its troops are there.
Reuters journalists heard explosions and saw columns of smoke on the eastern outskirts of Mariupol, a government-held port of 500,000 people that is the next big city in the path of the rebel advance. A Ukrainian military source said troops were bracing for a potential attack on the city.
Government shells rained down overnight on a residential district of Donetsk, capital of one of the rebels’ two self-proclaimed independent states. Houses in Donetsk’s leafy Petrovka district were pockmarked with shrapnel. Residents had sought refuge in a bomb shelter.
“I don’t think they can reach any agreements now. Each side comes up with conditions unacceptable for the other. And so we get shelled,” said Lena, who declined to give her surname.
Reuters journalists saw a rebel column including a tank driving south from Donetsk toward the village of Berezovo. Residents said three burnt out military trucks in the village had carried Ukrainian troops that came under attack.