Three Ukraine soldiers killed despite lull as UN to discuss truce

Isolated clashes were reported in eastern Ukraine Friday, where government forces reported three soldiers killed, despite a truce with pro-Russian rebels appearing to take hold.

Soledar: Isolated clashes were reported in eastern Ukraine Friday, where government forces reported three soldiers killed, despite a truce with pro-Russian rebels appearing to take hold.

After two days in which neither side had reported any casualties, Kiev said three troops died and seven others were wounded in the past 24 hours, highlighting the fragility of the February 12 peace dea.

Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said that the fighting had halted along most of the frontline but there were still clashes in villages around the ruins of Donetsk airport, one of the most fought-over prizes in the conflict, which fell to the rebels last month.

The latest skirmishes came as the UN geared up to discuss the conflict exactly one year after Russia began seizing ports and cities on the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

Russia`s annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine sparked the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.

A year on, the West is hoping the UN-backed truce deal negotiated by Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France in Minsk can prevent a further escalation.

After an initial setback, caused by a rebel assault on the transport hub of Debaltseve, the deal appeared to be gaining traction this week.

Both sides said they were continuing to withdraw heavy weapons from along the frontline, a key part of the plan to end ten months of bloodshed in eastern Ukraine that has cost at least 5,800 lives.

Kiev said Thursday that it had started withdrawing 100-mm cannons, while the rebels claim they have nearly completed their pull-back.

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), however, told AFP that while they had seen weapon movements on both sides it was too early to confirm that a full withdrawal was taking place.

An AFP photographer on Friday saw monitors inspecting some two dozen Ukrainian artillery pieces, which were then towed in the direction leading away from the frontline.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko cautioned Friday that the withdrawal was "just a first, test step".

"At any moment our soldiers are ready to return our weapons to their previous positions and rebuff the enemy," he told troops in a speech Friday. Diplomats at the United Nations said the Security Council would hold an emergency session on Friday on the ceasefire deal at the request of France and Germany.

Council members will hear a report from two OSCE representatives on the situation on the ground, before meeting behind closed doors.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has welcomed the downturn in violence but demanded Moscow withdraw the weapons it is accused of sending across the border in support of the rebels.

Accusing Russia of transferring "over 1,000 pieces of equipment", including tanks, artillery and air defence systems, Stoltenberg said: "They have to withdraw this equipment and they have to stop supporting separatists."The United States and European Union have warned that Russia -- which has been battered by successive rounds of sanctions over the unrest in Ukraine as well as falling oil prices -- could face fresh economic punishment if the peace process unravels.

Moscow has itself ratcheted up the pressure by warning it could cut off gas supplies to Ukraine -- and, by extension, to parts of the EU.

Ukraine and Russia confirmed that they would attend urgent EU-brokered talks in Brussels Monday to try to resolve a dispute related to Moscow`s move to start direct supplies to rebel-held areas.

Moscow last year cut off gas deliveries to Ukraine before turning the taps back on in December after making cash-strapped Kiev pay in advance for its supplies.

Now, Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom is saying that Ukraine has only paid enough to cover gas supplies to the end of the week.

Ukraine says that Russia masterminded the rebellion in the east to punish Kiev for pursing closer ties with the West following the February 2014 ouster of Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych through street protests.

Russia accused the West of fomenting a coup in Kiev and quickly moved to take control of Crimea.

The Kremlin claimed the bloodless annexation was aimed at protecting Russian speakers on the peninsula.