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OSCE extends Ukraine mission for one year, may double its size

Observers of the ceasefire in Ukraine have agreed to extend their mandate until next spring. They have complained they are not being given enough access by either side to the front lines.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) decided to extend its observer mission in Ukraine for one year until March 2016, and may double its size to over 1,000 strong, a spokeswoman said on Thursday as the group met in Vienna.

Currently there are under 500 OSCE personnel overseeing the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. Last week, the foreign ministers of Germany and Russia called for the organization to increase its mission and extend its mandate.

Despite round-the-clock operations on the ground, the OSCE said as it stands they cannot confirm the withdrawal heavy weapons by either side in the conflict, as neither government troops nor separatists had given them access to all locations where weapons may be stored.

"The ceasefire holds broadly along the long contact line" in the embattled Donetsk and Luhansk regions, with crossfire continuing in some places but at "a lower level," deputy chief of the mission Alexander Hug said on Thursday from Kyiv. He warned however, that because the OSCE was not given full inventories of weapons nor full access to storage sites, the "relative stability is at the moment on thin ice."

Germany's foreign minister praised the move.

"This is a good decision. The OSCE observer mission has an extremely important task in overseeing the Minsk agreement," said Frank-Walter Steinmeier, adding that "in light of the still fragile situation on the ground, we have every interest in supporting and strengthening the mission in every way possible."

The decision by the OSCE came as Russia launched major military exercises in border regions including the annexed Crimean peninsula, French news agency AFP reported.

While Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Crimea, began separate drills to simulate an attack on its missile-carrying ships, around 8,000 ground troops were taking part in war games in regions all across the country, including southern Russia, Crimea, and the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, according to the AFP news agency.

NATO is boosting its defenses in Eastern Europe with a spearhead force of 5,000 troops and command centers in the Baltic states, Poland, and Russia - with the deployments starting this week. The alliance is also planing its biggest military exercise in years for October and November, involving 25,000 troops, though NATO officers say that this drill was planned before the Ukraine crisis broke out.

es/msh (AFP, Reuters)

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