Ukrainian rebel leader announces unilateral cease-fire




MOSCOW (AP) — The separatist leader in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday announced a unilateral cease-fire starting at midnight Wednesday, which could be a major step in solving the conflict that has been raging for more than two years.

The conflict between Russian-backed separatist rebels and Ukrainian government troops has killed more than 9,500 people since it began in April 2014. Ukraine and the separatists signed peace accords in Minsk, Belarus, last year but they were never fulfilled. What's more, the initial cease-fire has collapsed, turning an all-out war into a simmering conflict that, however, still claims lives.

Alexander Zakharchenko, rebel leader in Donetsk, made the cease-fire announcement in a recorded statement aired on Russian television on Tuesday, berating Kiev for a "lack of willingness to solve the problem in a peaceful manner."

Zakharchenko said he has ordered rebel troops to cease fire on Wednesday midnight and urged Ukraine to do the same.

Wearing a suit instead of his normal camouflage for the televised statement, the separatist leader said the rebels are "fully committed to the Minsk agreements" and see them as "the only solution."

It's the first time that that the separatists, who are widely believed to be controlled by Moscow, have come with an idea of a unilateral cease-fire.

At least three government troops have been killed and 15 wounded in fighting in eastern Ukraine in the past 24 hours, officials said. One more person was reported missing.

In Donetsk, the rebel mouthpiece Donetsk News Agency said three of its men have been killed.

The announcement comes a few hours after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that he expects the parliament to vote soon on constitutional amendments granting autonomy to eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine has blamed Russia for not doing enough to get the rebels to relinquish control over parts of the Ukrainian-Russian border while Russia is unhappy that Ukraine still has not adopted the constitutional amendments it was supposed to have introduced, granting autonomy to parts of eastern Ukraine.

Poroshenko, who said earlier on Tuesday that he would not send that bill to parliament until the time is right, later said he expects it to vote on the amendments "in the nearest future."

His office also announced that he will be meeting the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Poland and Britain on Wednesday in what could be summit talks to discuss the Ukraine settlement.

Before his joint visit to Kiev with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that after talking with Ukraine and Russia on Monday he believes it is possible "to agree now, and without preconditions, on a durable cease-fire."

"Our proposals are on the table, for making the cease-fire permanent and for the political process," Steinmeier said, adding that he will also be speaking to Ukrainian lawmakers to discuss what can be done to get the Minsk process moving.

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Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.
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