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Rebels withdraw from key frontline village: Kiev

A worker repairs a church destroyed as a result of shelling between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk on June 26, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ANDREY BORODULIN

SHYROKYNE, Ukraine: Pro-Russian fighters have withdrawn from a strategic frontline village, Ukraine's military reported on Friday, although some troops doubted whether the surprise retreat and lull in fighting would last.

Lying just 10 kilometers (six miles) east of the Sea of Azov industrial port of Mariupol - the target of repeated rebel attacks - Shyrokyne has been one of the deadliest hotspots of the 15-month separatist crisis in the ex-Soviet state's industrial east.

"The rebels withdrew to the east, leaving the settlement of Shyrokyne completely destroyed," military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk told reporters in Kiev.

But separatists warned that "unilateral demilitarization" by their side may not be enough to establish a lasting peace.

"We are waiting for a similar step [from Ukraine]," separatist leader Denis Pushilin told Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency.

A top official with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said his Ukrainian monitoring teams had also seen no presence of pro-Russian fighters in the village, Interfax reported.

Western powers, Russia and the OSCE have repeatedly urged the two sides to respect a February truce deal that demanded the immediate withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front.

But mutual mistrust has prompted daily exchanges of fire and turned Shyrokyne into an important staging post for rebel attacks on Mariupol - a port city the insurgents had vowed to seize in January before claiming to have changed their mind.

Ukrainian soldiers manning their positions in and around the devastated village expressed doubts about the significance of the militias' surprise withdrawal.

"This is just a demonstrative pullback of one infantry unit -- no more," Sedoi, the nom de guerre adopted by the commander of the pro-Kiev forces in the village, told AFP.

"It has absolutely has no effect on the situation. The threat is still there because their tank and artillery forces remain very close to Shyrokyne and could always attack again," he said.

The Ukrainian crisis has claimed more than 6,500 lives since breaking out in the wake of the February 2014 ouster in Kiev of a Russian-backed administration and its replacement by a strongly pro-European team.

 

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