Ukraine crisis: 'Weapons pullout begins'

A Ukrainian government soldier fires a grenade launcher in the Donetsk region. Photo: August 2015 Image copyright AFP
Image caption A ceasefire in eastern Ukraine has been holding since September despite reports of occasional shelling

Ukraine's government forces and pro-Russian rebels say they have begun withdrawing weapons from the line of contact in the east of the country.

Ukrainian officials said inventory work began on Saturday morning with the actual pullback to start in the afternoon.

The rebels in the Luhansk region said they were withdrawing tanks.

Both sides have committed to pulling out materiel carrying weapons with less than 100mm (4in) calibre.

The rebels in the Donetsk region were quoted as saying that they would start pulling out their weapons on 18 October.

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

The pullout date was announced at a meeting of leaders from Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany on Friday.

Moscow denies sending troops and heavy weapons to the pro-Russian separatists.

However, the Kremlin admits that Russian "volunteers" are fighting alongside the rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

'Synchronised watches'

In a separate development, OSCE monitors said in a statement on Friday they spotted the powerful TOS-1 Buratino multiple rocket launcher in Luhansk.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The "Normandy Four" leaders spend several hours discussing the key points of the Minsk peace deal

A spokesman for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine told the BBC the discovery was particularly significant because of the damage the rockets could cause.

The rebels have not commented on the OSCE report.

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In Paris, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko, France's Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for the first time since they agreed a peace deal for Ukraine in Minsk in February.

The so-called Normandy Four meeting assessed all elements of the deal, including the staging of local elections in the rebel-held regions and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the line of contact.

After the meeting, Mr Hollande said the pullout would start on Saturday, with Mr Poroshenko later confirming this in a statement (in Ukrainian).

Mr Poroshenko said this process would then continue in stages and should be completed within 41 days.

He said the 100m calibre pullout would include not just artillery pieces "but also tanks and mortars".

Regarding the elections in the rebel-held areas, the French leader said they must be held according to Ukrainian law, as envisaged in the Minsk peace deal.

Mr Poroshenko said the four leaders had supported the idea of the elections based exclusively on Ukrainian legislation and in the presence of OSCE observers, who should be granted full access.

However, the rebels said before the Paris talks that they still intended to proceed with staging local elections on their terms.

Kiev says such elections - to be held on different dates from the rest of Ukraine and not according to Ukrainian law - would be "fake".

A ceasefire in eastern Ukraine has been holding since September, although there have been reports of occasional shelling.

The clashes in the Luhansk and Donetsk region began in April 2014, a month after Russia annexed Ukraine's southern Crimea peninsula.

Image copyright BBbc