Ukraine crisis: 'Military threat from east to remain' despite truce

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Media captionNear Donetsk, militia men tell the BBC's Paul Wood they are fending off rebels with bullets from 1943

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko has said a "military threat from the east" will remain even if a ceasefire holds between government troops and pro-Russian rebels in the east.

Mr Poroshenko's warning is widely seen as an indirect reference to Russia.

Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of helping the rebels with weapons and soldiers - a claim denied by Moscow.

Ukraine's military said on Friday that three soldiers had been killed in the past 24 hours despite the truce.

Another seven soldiers were wounded, Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said at a news briefing.

That followed 48 hours during which the Ukrainian military said it had suffered no deaths, boosting hopes that the ceasefire might hold.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption OSCE monitors are trying to verify the withdrawal of heavy weapons by both sides

Both Ukraine and the rebels say they are now withdrawing their heavy weapons from the front line under the terms of the ceasefire agreed in Minsk, Belarus.

The process is yet to be officially confirmed by international monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

The ceasefire came into effect on 15 February but the rebels seized the key town of Debaltseve just days later.

Fighting began in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions - known as Donbas - in April, a month after Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula.

Almost 5,800 people have died since then, the UN has estimated, while at least 1.25 million have fled their homes since the conflict began.

In other developments on Friday:

  • Spanish police announced the arrest of eight Spaniards suspected of fighting alongside pro-Russian rebels
  • the UN Security Council is to hold an emergency session on the Ukraine crisis
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin cut the salaries of his administration employees by 10% as Moscow seeks to tackle a big fall in revenues caused by lower oil prices and Western sanctions

'Ready any time'

Speaking at Ukraine's National Defence University in Kiev on Friday, Mr Poroshenko said: "Even under the most optimistic scenario in Donbas... the military threat from the east would unfortunately remain."

He said this would require Ukraine to constantly strengthen the country's defensive capabilities.

The president also said the rebels were still violating the Minsk agreement, warning that the Ukrainian military was "ready any time" to bring back heavy weapons to the front line if the deal failed.

On Thursday, Ukraine said it began the pullout of 100mm calibre artillery from the front line, after none of its soldiers were killed for two days.

The separatist rebels in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic say they have pulled out hundreds of pieces of artillery and other weapons over the past several days.

Associated Press journalists witnessed rebels moving four Grad rocket launchers back to a location 70km (44 miles) from the front on Friday.

AP reporters also saw Ukrainian troops pulling back 100mm anti-tank guns from the front line near the town of Artemivsk.

The OSCE special monitoring mission has said it has observed movement of trucks and howitzers in several rebel-held areas.

Under terms agreed in Minsk, both Ukraine's government forces and the rebels must pull out their heavy weapons, creating a buffer zone of at least 50km.

The Ukrainian government, Western leaders and Nato say there is clear evidence that Russia is helping the rebels with heavy weapons and soldiers.

Independent experts echo that accusation while Moscow denies it, insisting that any Russians serving with the rebels are "volunteers".