Artemivsk: Ukraine's military on Thursday said it had started the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the frontline, bolstering a stuttering peace plan as the United States and Russia traded barbs over the conflict.
The announced pull-back -- a key part of a peace deal negotiated earlier this month -- comes after a shaky truce that was meant to come into force on February 15 but only took hold across the conflict zone in recent days.
"Ukraine is today beginning the withdrawal of 100mm cannons from the frontline," the army said in a statement.
"This is the first step in the pull-back of heavy weapons and will be carried out exclusively under the supervision and verification of the OSCE (the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe)."
An AFP photographer saw Ukrainian forces today towing at least 15 cannons away from the frontline around the strategic town of Debaltseve.
The arms withdrawal, which is meant to create a buffer zone between the two warring sides, is due to be completed within two weeks.
Rebels insist they have already pulled back the majority of their artillery, rocket launchers and missile systems from some areas.
But while OSCE monitors have reported seeing some big guns heading away from the rebel lines, they say the warring sides have not provided information needed to determine what, if any, arms withdrawals have occurred.
Fighting has died down dramatically over the past few days. Ukraine's military said for the second day running that there were no fatalities among its soldiers but that four had been wounded.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg hailed the downturn in violence but kept up the pressure by calling for Moscow to pull out of Ukraine the weapons it is accused of sending in to the rebels.
"Russia has transferred in recent months over 1,000 pieces of equipment -- tanks, artillery and advanced air defence systems," Stotenberg said in Rome.
"They have to withdraw this equipment and they have to stop supporting separatists."
The words highlighted the unabated tensions between the West and Moscow.
Addressing US lawmakers yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia and pro-Moscow rebels had failed to meet the terms of the ceasefire.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had put in place policies that "violate all the international norms with respect to territory and behaviour," Kerry said.