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Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels reach ceasefire deal

The ceasefire deal was struck in the Belarusian capital along with a deal allowing for prisoner exchanges

FILE: Pro-Russian militant stand guard in front of the occupied Ukraine Security Service building on 21 April, 2014 in Slovyansk, Ukraine. Picture: AFP.

MINSK - Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels reached a ceasefire agreement on Friday, the first step toward ending fighting in eastern Ukraine that has caused the worst standoff between Moscow and the West since the Cold War ended.

The ceasefire deal was struck in the Belarusian capital Minsk along with a deal allowing for prisoner exchanges, deliveries of humanitarian aid and the withdrawal of heavy weapons after five months of a conflict that has killed more than 2,600 people.

Despite some initial shelling in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk after the truce began at 6 pm, the ceasefire appeared to be holding. But many residents and combatants were sceptical that the ceasefire could last long or provide the basis for a durable peace settlement. The two sides remain far apart on the future of the region.

Despite the deal, the European Union (EU) slapped new economic sanctions on Russia - the latest in a series of measures aimed at punishing Moscow over Ukraine. But the EU said the sanctions could be suspended if Russia withdraws its troops from Ukraine and observes the ceasefire. A senior EU diplomat told Reuters implementation is expected on Monday.

Some provisions will make it harder for Russian state-owned firms to raise finance in the EU. Diplomats expect them to hit, among others, the oil company Rosneft and units of Gazprom though not the gas firm itself, a main supplier to the EU.

"Human life is the highest value. We must do everything possible and impossible to end the bloodshed and put an end to people's suffering," Ukrainian P resident Petro Poroshenko said in a statement announcing the truce, reached with representatives of Russia and the OSCE security watchdog.

The Kremlin welcomed the agreement, based largely on proposals made by President Vladimir Putin and leaving the pro-Russian separatists in control of vast swaths of territory.

Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, urged the sides to build on the deal and seek a permanent political settlement, although many problems remain and an earlier June ceasefire lasted only 10 days.

OBAMA WARY ABOUT CEASEFIRE

At a NATO summit in Wales, US President Barack Obama, who accuses Russia of arming the rebels and sending in troops to back them, reacted with scepticism to the deal.

"With respect to the ceasefire agreement, obviously we are hopeful but based on past experience also sceptical that in fact the separatists will follow through and the Russians will stop violating Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. So it has to be tested," Obama told a news conference.

"We also sent a strong message to Russia that actions have consequences. Today the United States and Europe are finalising measures to deepen and broaden our sanctions across Russia's financial, energy and defence sectors," Obama added.

The agreement among the European Union countries expanded the package of sanctions against Russia to measures related to access to capital markets, defence, dual-use goods with both military and civilian applications and sensitive technology. A further 24 people were added to a list of those barred from entry to the bloc and whose assets in the EU are frozen.

Also attending the NATO summit, Poroshenko told reporters Ukraine was ready to grant a significant decentralization of power and economic freedom to the regions as well as the right to use the language of their choice and an amnesty.

A senior rebel leader said separatists still want a formal split for their mainly Russian-speaking regions. "The ceasefire does not mean the end of (our) policy to split (from Ukraine)," Igor Plotnitsky, a leader of the Luhansk region, told reporters.

NATO also sent a firm message to Russia by approving wide-ranging plans to boost its defences in eastern Europe, aiming to reassure allies nervous about Russia's intervention in Ukraine that the US-led alliance will shield them from any attack.

The plan includes creating a "spearhead" rapid reaction force and pre-positioning supplies and equipment in eastern European countries so they can be reinforced within days in a crisis.

Minutes after the ceasefire began, three blasts were heard north of Donetsk, followed by scattered mortar and artillery fire, but this later fell quiet. The ceasefire allowed people to emerge from cellars where they have been taking shelter.

"We went out for a walk after three days of hiding, and this is a huge relief," said Lesya, 30, carrying her newborn boy in Mariupol. "But I am not optimistic. We have already seen so many broken ceasefires."

Hopes the ceasefire will hold are also clouded by Western suspicions that Putin unveiled a seven-point peace plan this week merely to dupe NATO's leaders and avert new sanctions being considered by the over the crisis.

Fighting began in east Ukraine in mid-April, after Russia annexed Crimea following the removal of a Ukrainian president sympathetic to Moscow and Kiev shifted policy toward the EU.

By pushing for a ceasefire this week, Poroshenko changed his position after the tide turned in the conflict and Ukrainian troops were beaten back by a resurgent rebel force which the West says has received military support from Russia.

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