Ukraine leader pleads with Russia to withdraw as truce holds

Ukraine leader pleads with Russia to withdraw as truce holds
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko speaks at the IISS-Asia.

KIEV - Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Thursday pleaded with Russia to withdraw its troops from his country and close the border, saying doing so would create peace in the war-torn region within weeks.

Poroshenko, on a visit to Australia, spoke as a day-old ceasefire largely held along the bloodied frontline in eastern Ukraine, but hopes of peace talks and pulling back heavy weaponry still hung in the balance.

"Please stop the fire. Please release the hostages. Please withdraw your troops from my territory," Poroshenko said in a joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

"Please close the border. And I promise if you close the border, within one, two, three weeks, we have peace and stability in Ukraine. Very simple." Residents in the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk experienced an unfamiliar silence overnight as both Ukrainian and rebel forces called off shelling.

"It was quiet for the first time in two months," said 26-year-old Oksana Leventova, who lives in Donetsk.

"It was disconcerting, but my kids slept peacefully." Interviews with people along the frontline confirmed the ceasefire - the fourth since the separatist war broke out in April - was being largely respected.

But there were still enough minor violations for the Ukrainian military to delay withdrawal of heavy weaponry from the frontline and the creation of a buffer zone.

"For the first time in a long time in east Ukraine, the military did not suffer any losses (on Tuesday)," said military spokesman Andriy Lysenko, but he added there had been 16 shots fired.

"Once there has been a day without a single shot, it will signal we can start the process of withdrawing heavy weapons," he told AFP.

Reluctant rebels

The fate of peace talks - which the government had initially hoped to convene in the Belarussian capital Minsk on Tuesday - was also uncertain.

Poroshenko said Russia must abide by a peace plan agreed in Minsk on September 5 that was meant to establish a 30-kilometre buffer between the fighters and grant limited self-rule to the separatists.

But hostilities only intensified after the two rebel regions - the self-proclaimed People's Republics of Lugansk and Donetsk - held their own leadership polls on November 2 that were denounced by both Kiev and the West.

Rebel leader Andrei Purgin told AFP on Wednesday that the two sides were still discussing a date and agenda for talks, and expected them to go ahead on Friday.

But there are signs the rebels are less keen on suing for peace than their Russian backers or the Ukrainian government.

The "contact group" of Ukrainian, European and Russian observers said on Tuesday they were concerned that leaders from the rebel provinces "had been avoiding substantive discussions on cessation of hostilities", in a statement released to the Interfax news agency.

Denis Pushilin, co-leader of the Donetsk rebel government, said they want to talk about ending Kiev's economic blockade of the region, which has seen all banking and welfare services cut.

But while he claimed the rebels were willing to talk about a political settlement, much of the recent progress appears to be happening over their heads in talks between Kiev and Moscow.

General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff, said Wednesday that his forces had been invited into the Donetsk region by the Ukrainian government to help "find compromise solutions to de-escalate tension and withdraw troops from lines of contact".

The thaw may reflect Russia's mounting reluctance to keep sponsoring the eight-month insurgency, which has claimed at least 4,300 lives and displaced nearly a million according to UN figures.

Russia denies giving military backing to the rebels but Kiev and Western governments have presented an abundance of evidence to the contrary, triggering a level of diplomatic isolation not seen since the Cold War.

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel - long the voice of moderation when it comes to dealing with Russia - said this week: "Russia has violated, and continues to violate, international law." Poroshenko emphasised Thursday that Russia was on its own.

"The whole civilised world, European Union, Australia, Canada, United States, Japan, the whole world is together with Ukraine and Russia stays in isolation," he said.

With Russia's economy already in crisis from tumbling oil prices and Western sanctions, there have been reports of a change of personnel in its Ukraine policy team in recent weeks.

But even if the peace holds, Ukraine faces a mammoth task in winning back the trust of citizens in the east and rebuilding an economy on the brink of collapse.

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