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November 10, 2019

Ukraine foes start troop withdrawal in war-torn east


November 10, 2019

BOGDANIVKA, Ukraine: The Ukrainian army and Moscow-backed separatists on Saturday launched the last phase of a troop pullback ahead of a high-stakes summit with Russia, the warring sides said.

The long-awaited withdrawal of troops in the conflict-riven Donetsk and Lugansk regions is a precondition for the first face-to-face talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky.

The Paris summit, whose date has yet to be confirmed, will be mediated by the leaders of France and Germany.

“The disengagement of troops and weaponry has begun” between the villages of Petrivske in the separatist-controlled zone and Bogdanivka in Kiev-controlled territory in the Donetsk region, said a senior Ukrainian army representative, Bogdan Bondar.

Donetsk separatists also confirmed the start of the withdrawal of forces, which was observed by OSCE monitors.

The warring sides signalled their intention to withdraw by firing flares.

An AFP correspondent saw three infantry fighting vehicles, two military trucks and two dozen Ukrainian soldiers leaving their positions.

Bondar said that the withdrawal was to be completed in three days. It will then be followed by mine clearance and other activities which will last 25 days.

The warring sides held a similar pullback in the Lugansk region in October.

Since coming to power in May, Ukraine’s 41-year-old comedian-turned-president has sought to establish dialogue with Russian strongman Putin and revive a peace process to end a five-year-old separatist conflict that has claimed some 13,000 lives.

“The Normandy format aims to renew dialogue, which can bring us closer to the complete end of the war,” Zelensky said this week, referring to the four-way talks.

But the summit has been repeatedly postponed for a number of reasons, including the failure of earlier attempts to disengage forces.

The withdrawal of forces would be the “final precondition” for organising the four-way summit, Ukrainian 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.

But many political observers remain sceptical, saying that the Kremlin could come up with yet more conditions.

“The chances of holding a summit have grown,” Kiev-based analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told AFP.

However he noted that Russia also wanted experts to agree in advance on the wording of a document that will be adopted as a result of the Normandy talks.

“There is a number of disputed positions between Ukraine and Russia which will be hard to agree upon,” Fesenko said. Russia has said it backs a new summit but has refused to commit to a timetable.

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