MOSCOW — Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday announced a unilateral cease-fire starting at midnight Wednesday, a potentially major step in solving a conflict that has raged for more than two years.
The conflict between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government troops has killed more than 9,500 people since April 2014. Representatives of Ukraine, the separatists and Russia signed a February 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany in Minsk, Belarus, but frequent clashes have continued and political provisions of the agreement have never been implemented.
Alexander Zakharchenko, the rebel leader in Donetsk, made the cease-fire announcement in a recorded statement aired on Russian television Tuesday, berating Kiev for a “lack of willingness to solve the problem in a peaceful manner.”
Zakharchenko said he has ordered rebel troops to halt their fire at midnight Wednesday and urged Ukraine to do the same.
The separatist leader said the rebels are “fully committed to the Minsk agreements” and see them as “the only solution.”
Igor Plotnitsky, the separatist leader in the Luhansk region, also announced a cease-fire Tuesday.
It is the first time that the separatists, who are widely believed to be controlled by Moscow, have proposed a unilateral cease-fire.
At least three government troops had been killed and 15 wounded in fighting in eastern Ukraine in the previous 24 hours, officials said. One person was reported missing.
In Donetsk, the rebel mouthpiece Donetsk News Agency said three of its men had been killed.
The cease-fire announcement came a few hours after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that he expects parliament to vote soon on constitutional amendments granting more autonomy to Ukrainian provinces, including the rebellious eastern regions.
“Decentralization is a policy that has no alternative,” Poroshenko tweeted Tuesday. “I expect the Verkhovna Rada to support the constitutional amendments regarding decentralization.” The Verkhovna Rada is the Ukrainian parliament.
Ukraine has blamed Russia for not doing enough to get the rebels to relinquish control over parts of the shared border, while Russia is unhappy that Ukraine still has not adopted the constitutional amendments.
On Wednesday, Poroshenko is to meet with top diplomats from France and Germany and hold separate talks with the foreign ministers of Britain and Poland in what appears to be part of a diplomatic blitz to discuss the conflict settlement.