Ukraine delays heavy weapons pullback, blames rebel attacks
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) Ukraine delayed a promised pullback of heavy weapons from the front line Monday, blaming continuing attacks from separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Under a peace agreement reached Feb. 12, both sides are to withdraw their heavy weapons 25 to 70 kilometers (16 to 44 miles) back to create a buffer zone. Ukrainian officials said Sunday they were planning to start.
However, military spokesman Lt. Col. Anatoliy Stelmakh told reporters on Monday the pullback will not begin until rebel attacks stop entirely, in line with a cease-fire that was supposed to begin Feb. 15.
Stelmakh said there were two rebel artillery attacks overnight and although this is significantly fewer than in previous days, "as long as firing on Ukrainian military positions continues, it's not possible to talk about a pullback."
Col. Valentyn Fedichev, deputy commander of the military operation against the rebels, said there had been 27 attacks against Ukrainian forces over the past 24 hours, which he said was lower than in recent days. He also indicated that no pullback was imminent.
"If the enemies continue to use their own heavy weapons, it is clear that Ukraine will continue to counteract these operations," he said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's observer mission in Ukraine is supposed to be monitoring the weapons withdrawal. Its spokesman, Michael Bocuirkiw, told the AP on Monday the monitors had seen heavy weapons movements by both sides but could not tell whether weapons were being pulled back or just being redeployed.
Under the peace agreement that was worked out after all-night talks between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France on Feb. 12, the weapons pullback is to commence when shooting ends and be completed within two weeks.
An Associated Press reporter on Monday saw Ukrainian forces moving back from around the town of Debaltseve, which was captured last week by rebel forces after a fierce weekslong siege.
Both Stelmakh and Fedichev said rebels are still trying to overrun a Ukrainian government position in the village of Shyrokyne, on the outskirts of the strategic port city of Mariupol.
Rebels began moving toward Mariupol last August, raising concerns they were seeking to seize the city in order to establish a land corridor between mainland Russia and the Russia-annexed Crimean peninsula.
In Mariupol, police clashed with three suspected militants after stopping their car; one policeman and one suspect were killed in the shootout, regional police official Vyacheslav Abroskin said on his Facebook page. He said a bag containing explosives was found after the Monday evening clash.
Russia has denied arming the rebels, a denial scoffed at by Western nations and NATO, who point to satellite pictures of Russian weapons in Ukraine.
Ukraine's economy has been badly hit by more than a year of crisis that began with the protests that eventually drove out Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. On Monday, its hryvnia currency took a sharp fall of about 9 percent; it's now about 70 percent lower than a year ago.
Ukraine's national bank on Monday announced that payments in foreign currencies would be capped at $500,000 without letters of credit from foreign banks, a move to stem capital outflows that would weaken the currency further.
Associated Press reporter Mstyslav Chernov in Artemivsk contributed to this report.