DONETSK, Ukraine: Pro-Russian rebels defiantly announced Tuesday they will stage their own elections in just six weeks, raising the stakes in a standoff with Kiev despite both sides moving to end five months of deadly fighting.
The self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics said they would hold simultaneous votes on November 2 to choose their leaders and “Supreme Soviets” or parliaments.
The surprise announcements are a slap in the face for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who only a week ago offered the separatist regions limited self-rule in a major concession to try to forge peace.
There was no immediate comment from his office.
Just hours earlier, insurgent leaders said they were withdrawing their big guns from the frontline under a peace plan forged with Kiev aimed at ending a conflict that has now killed 3,543 people since April.
The true death toll could be “significantly higher”, a top UN official warned Tuesday, as the figure only covers available records of killings.
Agence France-Presse journalists said they saw tanks moving back from an area near Donetsk — the main rebel stronghold — although fighting was reported around the city’s airport.
“We have withdrawn artillery but only in those areas where the Ukrainian regular units have done the same,” Donetsk’s self-styled prime minister Alexander Zakharchenko told the Interfax news agency.
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.
Hopes for an end to violence that has devastated many towns across Ukraine’s rustbelt had been kindled by an initial European-brokered truce signed by Moscow as well as Kiev and the rebels on September 5.
Ukrainian lawmakers then last Tuesday adopted legislation offering the rebels broader autonomy for three years and local elections on December 7.
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.
The war has sent the already struggling economy to the brink of collapse, and Ukraine is relying on a $27 billion (21 billion euro) international bailout to stay afloat.
The national currency the hryvnia has been hovering around historic lows after plunging more than 40 percent this year, which Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk blamed on “panic” and speculation over the uncertain situation in the east.
Poroshenko met with leading cabinet ministers, central bank governors and the heads of several major banks Tuesday to try to shore up the situation and reassure financial markets.
The separatists launched their insurrection in April, seizing towns and cities across the east and holding disputed independence referendums in May for Donetsk and Lugansk.
In five months of clashes at least 3,245 people died, UN rights official Ivan Simonovic said Tuesday, plus the 298 victims of the downing of a Malaysian passenger jet in July.
The level of violence appeared to have subsided overall since Saturday.
However Ukrainian officials said 40 civilians and soldiers had been killed in almost daily shelling and exchanges of fire since the initial September 5 truce.
“Not everything’s clear with the ceasefire,” rebel leader Zakharchenko said. “Firing from the Ukrainian side is still going on as before. I would call this a slow-moving military operation.”
Poroshenko agreed to the peace plan after several rounds of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is blamed by Kiev and the West for fomenting the rebellion by sending in elite troops and heavy weapons.
Kiev signed up to the deal after the rebels — apparently with Russian military backing — swept across the southeast towards the Sea of Azov, delivering a series of battlefield defeats to the government.
NATO says Russia still has troops in Ukraine, although Moscow denies ever sending forces across the border.
The self-rule law has been derided 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.
About seven million people live in Donetsk and Lugansk, and the coal and steel region accounts for about a quarter of national exports.
But the separatists do not hold sway over the entire area.
The rebel-held zones stretch about 230 kilometers (140 miles) from Lugansk south to the Sea of Azov and around 160 kilometres from Donetsk eastwards to the Russian border, according to Agence France-Presse calculations based on Ukrainian military maps.