, KIEV, September 21- Ukrainian forces and pro Kremlin militias were due Sunday to pull back under a new peace plan, but NATO’s top military commander warned that there was a ceasefire “in name only” on the ground.
The warring sides are required to move back fighters and weaponry and create a buffer zone along the frontline that splits the separatist east of Ukraine from the rest of the ex Soviet state.
The withdrawal and an accompanying monitoring mission by teams from the OSCE pan European security body are at the heart of a nine point plan struck early Saturday in the Belarussian capital Minsk.
The deal is meant to reinforce a truce forged on September 5 in a bid to stem five months of conflict that has claimed nearly 3,000 lives and threatened Ukraine’s very survival.
AFP reporters said the situation on the ground appeared calm early Sunday, but it was not immediately known if there had been any movement of government troops or rebels.
NATO top commander, General Philip Breedlove, said Saturday that continued clashes had shown the two week old agreement to be a ceasefire “in name only” and accused Russia of keeping soldiers on Ukrainian soil to bolster the insurgents.
The truce was “still there in name, but what is happening on the ground is quite a different story,” he said on the sidelines of a NATO meeting symbolically convened in the ex Soviet satellite state of Lithuania.
But he struck a more optimistic note when he spoke of Saturday’s Minsk agreement. “It is our sincere hope and desire that… the two combatants can come to agreement to again get to a ceasefire situation,” he said.
– Russians ‘still in Ukraine’ –
The Minsk memorandum — signed by the warring parties and endorsed by both Moscow’s Kiev ambassador and an OSCE envoy — also requires the withdrawal of all “foreign armed groups” and mercenaries from the conflict zone.
Russia denies having any forces in Ukraine. It says a number of its troops captured by Kiev’s forces must have accidently strayed across the border.
But Breedlove insisted NATO intelligence showed that the Russian forces “are still inside Ukraine”.
Former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma — representing Kiev throughout the stuttering efforts to resolve the crisis — also warned the Minsk deal would fall apart without the creation of a 30 kilometre (20 mile) demilitarised zone.
Territory under rebel control would be left open to their administration under a temporary self-rule plan adopted by lawmakers in Kiev last Tuesday in tandem with legislation that grants amnesty to fighters on both sides.
Swiss president and OSCE chief Didier Burkhalter hailed the Minsk deal as “a significant step towards making the ceasefire sustainable and an important contribution in the efforts to peacefully settle the crisis”.
But the pact only came together after all sides agreed to leave the most divisive political issues over the status of the rebel-held areas in Ukraine’s rustbelt for future negotiation.
It also overlooked unceasing flareups in violence that have claimed the lives of 35 Ukrainians soldiers and civilians since the original truce was declared.
A series of ground shaking blasts tore through a Soviet era munitions plant on the outskirts of the main rebel stronghold city of Donetsk on Saturday after being hit by artillery fire, local officials said.
The incident caused no casualties but saw a huge cloud of smoke rise over an entire section of the city.
“When the first two explosions went off I woke up,” said a 15 year old schoolboy named Bogdan. “I could feel the wave of the impact, the vibrations in my body.”
– New Russian truck convoy –
Rebel representatives in the city of nearly one million people also said Saturday they had received a huge Russian humanitarian convoy — a type of shipment Kiev believes Moscow may be using to secretly supply the rebels with arms.
A Ukrainian security spokesman said Moscow had blatantly “violated international law and our sovereignty” because it never gave Ukrainian customs officials a chance to inspect the cargo.
But there were still signs that the truce was making some progress in other areas.
Rebels on Saturday handed over 34 Ukrainian government soldiers in exchange for 38 separatist militants in the latest prisoner swap.
Saturday’s Minsk agreement came at the end of a dizzying week for Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko that included Kiev’s ratification of a landmark EU association agreement and a visit to Washington for talks with US President Barack Obama.
But the 48-year-old chocolate baron failed to persuade Obama to provide Kiev with offensive weapons in the face of Russian “aggression”.