BOGDANIVKA, Ukraine (AFP): The Ukrainian army and Moscow-backed separatists on Friday, November 8 postponed by a day the last phase of a long-awaited troop pull back in the war-torn east.
The withdrawal of forces is a precondition for the first face-to-face talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky.
The summit, the date of which has yet to be set, will be mediated by France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Ukrainian government said earlier it was ready to begin the withdrawal of troops near the village of Petrivske in the Donetsk region on Friday, but the separatists insisted that the withdrawal be delayed until Saturday.
“The withdrawal of forces and hardware will start on Saturday, 9 November 2019, at 12:00 Kiev time” (10:00 GMT), Martin Sajdik, an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe envoy, said in a statement.
In a sign of persisting tensions, a Ukrainian army soldier was killed and another five were wounded over the past two days along the volatile frontline, the army said.
The warring sides held two similar pullbacks in June and October.
The withdrawal of forces would be the “final precondition” for organizing the four-way summit, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said this week.
He has expressed hope that the meeting, the first at such a high level since 2016, could take place in Paris in November.
‘Many questions’ unresolved
Since coming to power in May, comedian-turned-president Zelensky, 41, has sought to revive a peace process to end the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine that has claimed some 13,000 lives since 2014.
But those efforts have stalled as Zelensky’s plan, including the troop pullback, has been strongly criticized in Kiev, especially by war veterans and nationalists.
“The Normandy format aims to renew dialogue, which can bring us closer to the complete end of the war,” Zelensky said in comments released on Thursday, referring to the four-way talks.
The summit has been repeatedly postponed as previous attempts to organize troop withdrawals have failed.
Russia has said it backs a new summit but has refused to commit to a timetable.
“We want to hold the summit as soon as possible, but at the same time we consider this summit has to be well organized to ensure it gets the necessary results,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
He added it was “too early to say” whether the meeting could take place this year because “many questions” remained unresolved.
The warring sides on Saturday are set to signal their intention to withdraw by firing a flare before moving back one kilometre.
OSCE monitors will observe the disengagement which could be spread over several days.
If the pullback goes ahead, it raises the possibility of a withdrawal along the more than 400 km (249 mile) frontline.
In the run-up to the summit, Ukrainian, Russian and separatist negotiators also agreed on a roadmap that envisages a special status for the separatist territories if they conduct free and fair elections under the Ukrainian constitution.
The war in the country’s east broke out a month after Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Moscow of giving financial and military backing to separatists, which Russia denies.