Ukraine, pro-Russia rebels begin Donetsk arms withdrawal

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian insurgents said Tuesday they had begun withdrawing tanks and smaller weapons from the front line in the devastated Donetsk region in the ex-Soviet state's eastern war zone.

The pullback follows similar arms movements in the smaller separatist Lugansk province and falls in line with the terms of a new truce struck by the warring sides on September 1.

The de-escalation -- if it holds -- would mark an important step in finally halting an 18-month conflict that has killed more than 8,000 people and plunged Russia's relations with the United States and Europe to a post-Cold War low.

It would also provide an important boost to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande's repeated efforts to find a solution to one of Europe's deadliest conflict since the 1990s Balkans wars.

"The withdrawal has already started," Ukrainian military spokesman Leonid Matyukhin said in a statement.

"At this very moment, we are withdrawing from around Debaltseve."

The militias seized the strategic village in a daring February raid that left Ukrainian troops surrounded and forced to beat a humiliating retreat.

The shattered and nearly empty industrial village that was once home to about 25,000 people remains under rebel control.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic's deputy rebel commander Eduard Basurin told AFP by telephone that the "pullback has begun with Debaltseve" and would continue in other locations on Wednesday.

Debaltseve controls transport links between the two separatist regions and had been fiercely defended by Ukrainian troops throughout the war.

Debaltseve's fall weighed heavily on Ukraine's pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko -- already accused of making grand concessions to Moscow at talks attended by Merkel and Hollande in the Belarussian capital Minsk only days before.

The February Minsk deal required both sides to immediately pull back their heavy weapons from the 500-kilometre (300-mile) front -- a withdrawal that was never fully enforced.

But the September 1 deal, and another four-way summit that Hollande hosted in Paris on October 2, has helped to substantially stem daily bloodshed and introduce relative calm to much of the Russian-speaking region.

The Paris meeting also prompted Putin to pile enough pressure on the insurgency's leaders to push back their planned local elections -- condemned as "fake" by Poroshenko -- into next year.

- Rebel defiance -

Those polls are meant to be conducted under the terms of Ukrainian legislation that grants the regions temporary and only partial self-rule.

But the rebels had barred pro-Kiev candidates from registration and had remained determined to hold the vote on their own terms.

Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko sounded defiant despite the progress reportedly being made on the ground.

The outspoken commander called Kiev's demand that elections in the separatist regions be held under Ukrainian law and overseen by foreign observers "a sign that they have absolutely no idea how the people here really live."

"How can we allow (pro-Kiev) parties take part in the vote when they provided the political cover for the... effective genocide of our people," Zakharchenko asked in a statement carried on the Donetsk rebels' official news site.