Leaders from four countries defended a long-flouted ceasefire agreement for eastern Ukraine on Friday, as withdrawal of small-calibre arms was set to go into effect over the weekend.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the Ukrainian military would begin withdrawing guns with a calibre of less than 100 millimetres from the front lines on Saturday, describing the agreement as the most significant achievement of the talks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed that the sides agreed that the withdrawal would begin “tomorrow at midnight.”
While no major breakthroughs were announced after talks lasting nearly five hours, both French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the region was on the right track toward meeting a peace accord signed in Minsk in February.
Local elections in rebel-held areas will be postponed until observers could ensure that they would proceed legally, Hollande said after the talks in Paris.
The rebel governments in Donetsk and Luhansk had planned to hold elections on October 18 and November 1, respectively. The regular regional elections in Ukraine are scheduled for October 25.
Merkel said Putin had agreed to work toward holding the elections in accordance with Ukrainian law.
But Vladislav Deinego, a spokesman for the self-declared separatist republic of Luhansk, told Interfax news agency the rebel elections would go ahead as planned.
“Ukraine needs to show its desire to work on the realization on the points of the [Minsk] agreement before there can be any talk of cancelling the scheduled elections,” Deinego said.
Poroshenko told reporters separately that there should be elections in the conflict-ridden regions, but he would not recognize autonomous elections in the rebel-held areas.
“Nothing has been respected 100 per cent,” Merkel acknowledged, but expressed optimism that with the dwindling number of confrontations in the region over the past month it was possible that the agreement would hold.
Prior to the talks, the Ukrainian government and a rebel spokesman had already announced that small-calibre guns would be withdrawn from the front lines on Saturday.
“It was necessary to ensure that the removal of small arms that was approved by an agreement a few days accord would begin tomorrow,” Hollande said after the summit. “There must be a similar process for heavy weapons.”
The summit was planned as a follow-up meeting to a peace agreement inked in February in Minsk to end the Ukraine conflict. The peace accord has since been broken many times in a conflict that according to UN estimates, has killed more than 8,000 people and displaced 2 million.
The talks were partially overshadowed by both France’s and Russia’s announcements that they had commenced airstrikes in Syria. Hollande said he discussed the strikes with Putin during one-on-one talks that took place before the summit.
Military and nationalist vigilante groups have been battling pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine since spring 2014, but fighting has calmed down over the past month. Hollande and Merkel said the quieting of conflict could allow for the long-delayed Minsk accord to proceed.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is independently monitoring the conflict on the ground, has long pushed for the withdrawal of small-calibre weapons slated to begin on Saturday.
“All preparations have been completed,” Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said Friday in Kiev. “We are waiting for the signal from the OSCE that the ceasefire is respected.”