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Ukraine troops prepare withdrawal amid holding ceasefire

Ukrainian officials say government troops are preparing to pull out artillery and heavy armored vehicles from an agreed buffer zone. This comes as a fragile truce imposed on September 5 appears to be holding.

Ukrainian government troops are preparing to pull back heavy artillery from a proposed 30-kilometer (20-mile) buffer zone as agreed under a deal struck last week with pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, a military spokesman said on Monday.

Colonel Andriy Lysenko said a decrease in separatist artillery attacks, and the cessation of firing from Russian territory, had allowed the pull-back by the Ukrainian army.

He told journalists, however, that two Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in the past 24 hours despite a September 5 ceasefire deal, which has seen many violations ever since it began. The deaths bring to 39 the number of Ukrainian troops and civilians killed since the ceasefire took effect.

Rebels had also begun withdrawing their heavy artillery, he said, although it was "not as massive as we had expected."

The Kremlin-backed deal signed last week in the Belarusian capital Minsk to reinforce the original ceasefire appears to have brought some calm to eastern Ukraine, with the government in the coal hub of Donetsk - a major rebel stronghold - saying that there had been "no active combat" in or around the city for two days.

Among other things, the deal provides for monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor compliance with the truce once the pullout by the army and rebels has been completed.

Unanswered questions

However, the nine-point Minsk memorandum does not directly address the underlying issues of the conflict, including the separatists' demands for the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and their wish to come under full Russian control.

The Ukrainian parliament last week backed pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko's plan to accord the region a "special status" by granting it three years of effective autonomy. However, nationalist critics - and some members of the military - say the plan represents a capitulation in the face of what Kyiv views as Russia's expansionist policies.

Poroshenko's influence will likely be reduced following October 26 parliamentary elections that will give lawmakers expanded powers at the president's expense.

Almost 3,000 people have so far died in Ukraine's conflict, which began in the aftermath of the ousting of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych in late February.

Kyiv has frequently accused Russia of supporting the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, accusations Moscow has always denied.

tj,rc (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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