Ukraine, pro-Russian rebels agree Orthodox Easter truce

Ukraine, pro-Russian rebels agree Orthodox Easter truce

Kiev (AFP) - Ukraine's government on Friday agreed a new truce with pro-Russian insurgents to take effect on Orthodox Easter this weekend, reinforcing a deal signed more than a year ago.

The announcement comes a day after the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) warned that bloodshed in eastern Ukraine had reached levels not seen for months in the predominantly Russian-speaking war zone.

A peace deal co-signed by France and Germany in February 2015 in the Belarussian capital Minsk was meant to end the fighting by providing rebel-held regions limited autonomy within a unified Ukraine.

But the two-year war has now killed more than 9,300 people as the sides trade blame for violating the truce and not taking the political steps required to resolving one of Europe's deadliest crises since the 1990s Balkans wars.

A spokeswoman for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's envoy to the OSCE-mediated talks held in Minsk said the new truce would go into effect at midnight Friday (2100 GMT) and cover the two separatist provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk.

"It was agreed that instructions for full compliance with the ceasefire will be delivered to all the responsible officials on the ground," said a copy of the joint statement posted by Ukrainian spokesman Darka Olifer on Facebook.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Friday's agreement provided a chance "to prevent a further escalation of violence."

"The situation must not spiral out of control again and result in even more people dying," he said in a statement.

The Donetsk rebellion leaders' official news site said the OSCE had promised to monitor the pact's implementation and report any violations.

"However, today's agreement is far from the first of its kind," the separatists' news agency wrote.

"Since the autumn of 2014, when the sides of this conflict first began their negotiations in Minsk, there have been at least seven of them."

Friday's deal comes ahead of Orthodox Easter Sunday and covers holidays that include international workers' day on May 1 and the ex-Soviet Union's May 9 commemoration of victory over Nazi Germany during World War II.

- Major hurdles -

Moscow adamantly denies charges of either stoking or backing the revolt in eastern Ukraine in reprisal for the February 2014 ouster of Ukraine's Russian-backed president and the country's subsequent decision to deepen ties with the West.

But Kiev believes the main commanders answer to Moscow and step up their attacks whenever Russia wants to put the leadership in Kiev -- already hampered by financial woes and constant political infighting -- under renewed pressure.

Both sides said Friday's meeting ended without an agreement on a prisoner swap that was being planned in time for Easter.

The Ukrainian spokeswoman also reported no progress on the fate of possible local elections in rebel-run regions that the foreign minister of France had said should take place by the end of June.

"We cannot address political issues, including the one concerning elections in eastern regions not under Ukraine's control, without first agreeing on a way to deal with the violence," Olifer wrote on Facebook.

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