Donetsk: Pro-Russian rebels defiantly announced Tuesday they would stage their own elections in November, raising the stakes in a standoff with Kiev despite both sides moving to end five months of deadly fighting.
The prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People`s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, said the eastern separatist region would hold elections to choose a parliament and a leader on November 2.
The chairman of the "Supreme Soviet", or parliament, in the neighbouring Lugansk People`s Republic, Alexei Karyakin, told the TASS news agency that the region would hold polls on the same day.
The surprise announcements came just hours after Zakharchenko told the Interfax news agency the insurgents were withdrawing their big guns from the frontline under a peace plan forged with Kiev aimed at ending a conflict that has killed around 3,000 people.
AFP journalists said they saw tanks moving back from an area near Donetsk -- the main rebel stronghold in the industrial east -- although fighting was reported around the city`s airport in the morning.
"We have withdrawn artillery but only in those areas where the Ukrainian regular units have done the same," Zakharchenko said.
"Where Ukraine hasn`t withdrawn artillery, we haven`t done so."
Ukraine had said Monday it was starting a pullback under the terms of the deal signed in Minsk on Saturday that calls for both sides to withdraw from the frontline and establish a 30-kilometre (20-mile) wide demilitarised zone.
The separatists launched their uprising against Kiev in April, seizing towns and cities across the eastern rustbelt and holding disputed independence referendums in May for Donetsk and Lugansk.Across both Donetsk and Lugansk, the level of violence appears to have subsided after months of warfare that sent East-West tensions soaring.
But AFP journalists said Donetsk airport, a key battleground in the conflict, was hit by heavy artillery on Tuesday morning, sending flames and large clouds of black smoke shooting into the sky.
Donetsk city hall said a civilian was killed overnight, bringing to 40 the number of Ukrainian troops and civilians killed since an initial September 5 truce that was also signed in the Belarussian capital.
"Not everything`s clear with the ceasefire," Zakharchenko said. "Firing from the Ukrainian side is still going on as before. I would call this a slow-moving military operation."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko agreed to the peace plan after several rounds of talks with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who is blamed by Kiev and the West for fomenting the rebellion by sending in elite troops and heavy weapons.
The war "cannot be won by military means alone," Poroshenko said Sunday, while warning that Ukraine would defend itself with renewed vigour should the truce collapse.
Kiev signed up to the deal after the rebels -- apparently with Russian military backing -- swept across the southeast of Ukraine, delivering a series of battlefield defeats to government.
Ukrainian lawmakers earlier this month offered the rebels temporary self-rule and local elections on December 7.
But the Minsk deal put on the back burner all issues concerning claims by the separatist regions for full independence.
Poroshenko said the "special status" law was the only way out of a conflict that has threatened Ukraine`s very survival in the face of what Kiev views as Russia`s expansionist threat after its annexation of Crimea in March.
NATO says Russia still has troops in Ukraine, although Moscow denies ever sending forces across the border.
The self-rule law has been pilloried both by nationalist politicians who accuse Poroshenko of conceding defeat to the Kremlin, and by the rebels who feel they are no longer bound to Kiev.
"Let them call this a `special status` if they wish. But if the laws of Ukraine do not cover a particular region, that effectively recognises its independence -- only in more veiled terms," Lugansk separatist prime minister Igor Plotnitsky said Monday.
Meanwhile, EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger on Tuesday urged Russia not to use gas as a weapon in its standoff with the West over Ukraine.
Oettinger, on a visit to Kiev, said he hoped to reach an "interim solution" with Russia over its June decision to halt gas supplies to Ukraine when the three sides hold talks in Berlin on Friday.