DONETSK: Pro-Russian separatist leaders voiced willingness to extend a shaky ceasefire in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east on Friday, after releasing four out of eight international observers captured over a month ago, in an apparent goodwill gesture.
The ceasefire between the rebels and the government, set to expire later on Friday, has been marred by violations, including the death of five Ukrainian servicemen in overnight clashes and the downing of a military helicopter earlier this week.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who declared the ceasefire as part of a peace plan to end fighting that threatens to dismember the ex-Soviet state, has not yet said whether he will prolong it past Friday’s deadline.
He was expected to announce his decision late on Friday after returning to Kiev from Brussels where he signed a landmark free trade pact with the European Union. The pact has been at the heart of months of upheaval in his country and his signature drew an immediate threat of “grave consequences” from Russia.
Russia, which opposes its neighbour’s closer trade ties with the EU, annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula earlier this year after street protests in Kiev ousted the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich from power.
Moscow on Friday said it would welcome the extension of the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and renewed calls on Kiev to negotiate with the separatists rather than setting an “ultimatum” for them to lay down their arms. A rebel leader in the eastern city of Donetsk said the ceasefire could be prolonged until Monday, after meeting a “contact group” of mediators including Ukrainian ex-President Leonid Kuchma, Moscow’s ambassador to Kiev and representatives of the OSCE rights and security watchdog. “We will maintain (the ceasefire) until June 30,” Aleksander Boroday, “prime minister” of the self-styled Donetsk people’s republic, told reporters. He also held out the possibility of soon securing the release of the remaining four international OSCE observers captured by pro-Russian separatists while on a mission to monitor an earlier agreement to de-escalate the crisis.
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