DONETSK, September 23- Pro Russian rebels said Tuesday they were starting to withdraw their big guns from the frontline in eastern Ukraine under a peace plan forged with Kiev aimed at ending five months of conflict.
However, AFP correspondents reported that separatist fighters and Ukrainian forces were battling around the airport in the main rebel held city of Donetsk, underscoring the fragility of the deal.
The prime minister of the self proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said fighters had pulled back artillery after similar moves by Ukrainian forces under the terms of a new ceasefire accord hammered out on Saturday.
“We have withdrawn artillery but only in those areas where the Ukrainian regular units have done the same. Where Ukraine hasn’t withdrawn artillery, we haven’t done so,” Alexander Zakharchenko told the Interfax news agency.
Ukraine had said Monday it was starting a pullback of heavy weapons under the terms of the deal signed in Minsk that calls for both sides to withdraw from the frontline and establish a 30 kilometre (20 mile) wide demilitarised zone.
Across the flashpoint industrial regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, the level of violence appears to have subsided after five months of fighting that has killed around 3,000 people and sent East-West tensions soaring.
However, AFP journalists said the airport in Donetsk, a key battleground in the conflict, was hit by heavy artillery on Tuesday morning, sending flames and large clouds of black smoke shooting into the sky.
– ‘Slow-moving operation’ –
“Not everything’s clear with the ceasefire,” Zakharchenko said. “Firing from the Ukrainian side is still going on as before. I would call this a slow moving military operation.”
Donetsk city hall said a civilian was killed overnight, bringing to 40 the number of Ukrainian troops and civilians killed since an initial September 5 truce also signed in the Belarussian capital.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko agreed to the peace plan after several rounds of talks with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who is blamed by Kiev and the West for fomenting the rebellion by sending in elite troops and heavy weapons.
The war “cannot be won by military means alone,” Poroshenko said Sunday, while warning that Ukraine would defend itself with renewed vigour should the truce collapse.
Kiev signed up to the deal after the rebels — apparently with Russian backing — swept across the southeast of Ukraine, delivering a series of battlefield defeats to Ukrainian forces.
The OSCE pan European security group has 80 observers on the ground to check compliance with the truce on the frontline and Ukraine’s porous border with Russia.
In another sign of easing tensions, the overnight passenger train service between Kiev and Lugansk resumed on Monday after a two month suspension.
Ukrainian lawmakers earlier this month offered the rebels temporary self-rule but the Minsk deal puts on the back burner all issues concerning claims by the separatist regions for full independence.
Poroshenko said the “special status” law was the only way out of a conflict that has threatened Ukraine’s very survival in the face of what Kiev views as Russia’s expansionist threat after its annexation of Crimea in March.
NATO says Russia still has troops in Ukraine, although Moscow denies ever sending forces across the border.
The self rule law has been pilloried both by nationalist politicians who accuse Poroshenko of conceding defeat to the Kremlin, and by the rebels who feel they are no longer bound to Kiev.
“Let them call this a ‘special status’ if they wish. But if the laws of Ukraine do not cover a particular region, that effectively recognises its independence — only in more veiled terms,” Lugansk separatist “prime minister” Igor Plotnitsky said Monday.