A new roadmap aimed at ending a 10-month war between Ukraine and pro-Moscow rebels has been agreed in Belarus but scepticism remains as leaders warn that much is needed to be done before peace is achieved.
After a marathon summit in the Belarussian capital Minsk, Russian president Vladimir Putin said that he, German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Francois Hollande and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko had reached a ceasefire deal.
Taking a cautious stance, Poroshenko described the 17-hour talks as ‘very difficult’ and said he expected the implementation of the deal would not be easy.
Under the agreement, a ceasefire is to take effect at midnight Kiev time on Sunday and heavy weapons are to be withdrawn from the frontlines of the conflict, which has already killed at least 5,300 people and driven a million people from their homes.
Hollande described the deal as ‘a comprehensive political solution’, while Merkel spoke only of a ‘glimmer of hope’.
‘I have no illusions. We have no illusions,’ she said, adding that ‘much work’ remained.
The United States, which has said it could supply Ukraine with high tech weapons if the conflict continues, cautiously welcomed the accord, calling on Russia to stop its alleged support for the rebels.
‘The true test of today’s accord will be in its full and unambiguous implementation,’ the White House said, including ‘restoration of Ukrainian control over its border with Russia.’
It said it was ‘particularly concerned about the escalation of fighting on Thursday, which is inconsistent with the spirit of the accord.’
Kiev and rebel sources said fighting over the last 24 hours had killed 14 civilians and two Ukrainian soldiers.
The Ukrainian government also accused Russia of deploying another 50 tanks across the border overnight, with fighting expected to continue around disputed railway hub Debaltseve, which rebels claim to have surrounded.
‘The next few hours will be decisive as it could go either way,’ Hollande said on Thursday.
Poroshenko warned it was difficult to trust the other side and accused the rebels of launching an ‘offensive operation’ ahead of the ceasefire.
‘It was very difficult negotiation and we expect not easy implementation process,’ he said.
The latest talks were seen as a last opportunity for European leaders to save nearly bankrupt Ukraine from ever-widening defeats at the hands of rebels said by Kiev and the West to be armed and trained by Russia.
Ukraine’s pro-Western government is struggling to enact legal and economic reforms that would help steer the former Soviet republic out of Russia’s sphere of influence and into Western institutions.
The Kiev government got a major boost Thursday with the announcement by IMF chief Christine Lagarde of a new financial rescue plan worth $US17.5 billion ($A22.7 billion).
The new Minsk agreement includes a heavy weapons-free zone 50km to 70km wide wide.
Kiev will also begin retaking control over the approximately 400km stretch of Russia’s border with rebel-held Ukraine, but only after local elections are held.
While heavy weapons must be withdrawn, troops and rebels can remain where they are, handing rebels de facto control of the roughly 500 square kilometres of territory they’ve gained in recent weeks.
Separatist-held territories will be granted a degree of autonomy to be established through talks, and the right to decide which language they use.