International monitors threatened by gunmen in east Ukraine

KIEV (Reuters) - International monitors in eastern Ukraine said that armed people fired into the air when they tried to approach a group of howitzers near a separatist-controlled village, in an area from which such weapons were supposed to be withdrawn under a ceasefire agreement.

A special mission (SMM) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is monitoring the implementation of the ceasefire agreement which was reached by Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists in September.

Both sides were required to withdraw a wide range of weapons from a contact line to secure a fragile peace process, urged by leaders of Germany, France and Russia.

The mission said in a statement that the incident took place on Saturday at a field in the vicinity of Luhansk People's Republic (LPR)-controlled Yurivka, 26 km (16 miles) south-west of Luhansk. The SMM had observed 12 towed howitzers there, evidence of violation of the agreed withdrawal line.

"When the SMM further continued driving towards the howitzers and was at 80-100m distance, one of the armed individuals released a burst of fire into the air with an automatic rifle and another individual pointed his automatic rifle at the SMM," it said in the statement.

The monitors left the area and there was no injury or damage to either staff or their vehicles.

The ceasefire agreement requires both sides to provide the international monitors with full access to any places they need to verify a pullback of weapons.

"The SMM addressed the incident with senior LPR members, who acknowledged the seriousness of the incident, and said that they would examine it and inform the SMM accordingly," the mission said.

The ceasefire deal aims to end the conflict in which more than 8,000 people have been killed since fighting between Ukrainian troops and rebels seeking independence from Kiev erupted in April 2014.

Although the guns have been mostly silent since early September, Kiev and separatists continue to report casualties.

Ukraine's military spokesman said on Sunday one Ukrainian soldier had been killed in clashes with separatists in the past 24 hours. On Saturday, Kiev also reported one casualty.

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets; Editing by Digby Lidstone)