Ukraine court backs self-rule plan for conflict zone

Rebel artillery in eastern Ukraine, 25 Feb 15 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Rebel artillery: The ceasefire in eastern Ukraine remains precarious

Ukraine's highest court has approved constitutional changes that would allow limited self-rule to the rebel-held eastern areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The changes are part of a peace deal aimed at ending fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia rebels.

But many MPs oppose autonomy for the east and the decision must be voted through parliament.

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has released $1.7bn (£1.08bn) in aid to Ukraine.

The payment is part of a bailout aimed at stabilising Ukraine's struggling economy. The country is also trying to reach a deal with its main creditors on restructuring its debts.

'Important step'

On the ground, sporadic clashes continue in the east. The West says there is clear evidence of Russian regular troops helping the rebels and arming them with heavy weapons - something Moscow denies.

The constitutional changes are part of a general plan to devolve powers from the Ukrainian central government to the regions, the BBC's David Stern reports from the capital Kiev.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called Friday's constitutional court ruling "an important step that moves us closer to momentous changes for the state".

In a Facebook post he said that "for the first time in Ukraine's history, its head of state and government are ceding a large degree of their powers to the regions".

"This will make our country powerful and whole," he added.

Ukraine still insists, however, that elections in Donetsk and Luhansk must comply with the electoral rules set in Kiev - rather than terms set by the separatists.

Image copyright BBbc