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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko promised today to propose a bill granting “special status” to rebellious regions in eastern Ukraine, in a bid to boost support for Kiev amid a shaky cease-fire.
But Mr. Poroshenko said that the east would remain part of Ukraine, underscoring his unwillingness to consider calls from Moscow and pro-Russian rebels for federalization. Kiev has long argued such a move would give the eastern region near complete autonomy and propel it toward secession.
“Ukraine will not make any concessions on issues of its territorial integrity,” Poroshenko said in remarks during a nationally televised Cabinet meeting addressing the conflict that’s so far killed over 3,000, according to the Associated Press.
The president also said that 70 percent of Russian troops in Ukraine have left the country, something he said “strengthens our hope” for peace prospects, Reuters reports. Russia denies sending troops into Ukraine, a claim that Kiev and its Western supporters strongly dispute.
But Poroshenko also noted that "the cease-fire was not proving easy to maintain because 'terrorists' were constantly trying to provoke Kiev's forces."
The Ukrainian leader's speech comes as he faces mounting pressure in western Ukraine to prove that he did not negotiate away Ukraine’s territorial integrity during cease-fire talks last week, The Wall Street Journal reports.
It also comes as European Union officials meet in Brussels today to discuss a second set of sanctions against Russia that were to be announced earlier this week but were delayed to "assess the viability of a truce in Ukraine without risking further trade retaliation by Russia," Bloomberg notes.
Poroshenko gave few details as to what “special status” in the east would entail, but said it would be largely along the lines of the 12-point plan agreed to on Friday. But rebel leaders quickly pushed back.
A senior leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said that his group was not backing down from its demand for full independence from Kiev, the Journal reports:
We fully and wholeheartedly call for the independence of our republic within the limits of the Donetsk region," Andrei Purgin, the deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told Interfax news agency on Wednesday. "Colleagues from the Luhansk republic, as far as I know, have the same position on this issue," he added, referring to separatist leaders in Luhansk.
The Christian Science Monitor reported from Kiev Tuesday that the cease-fire, while officially holding for now, is not expected to last long.
But few expect the cease-fire to last very long, despite general agreement that both sides need breathing space from a brutal war that has officially killed over 3,000 people since mid-April. That's because most of the political steps laid down in the 12-point deal, known as the Minsk Protocol, are a patchwork of incompatible measures which neither side is willing to implement. For Kiev, one sticking point is the prospect of rebel-held regions electing local officials without central government oversight.
Poroshenko also said today that rebels have released 700 Ukrainian prisoners, a number the rebels also took issue with, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Mr. Poroshenko said 700 Ukrainian prisoners have been released and that talks are under way to free another 500, though rebel leaders have said this isn't accurate.
The Donetsk People's Republic's prime minister, Alexander Zakharchenko, said the separatists were preparing 36 prisoners to exchange for 36 Ukraine army detainees on Wednesday, Russian news agency Interfax reported. Shortly after the announcement, a spokesman for the Donetsk People's Republic said the exchange had been postponed until Thursday, without explanation, Interfax reported. He didn't specify who initiated the delay.
Poroshenko also signed into law today a bill passed by Ukraine’s parliament last month that allows Kiev to put sanctions on Russian companies and individuals thought to be supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine.