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article imageUkraine foes set to pull back troops Saturday

By Sergey Volsky (AFP)     Nov 7, 2019 in World

Ukraine's army and Kremlin-backed separatists on Friday postponed by a day the last phase of a long-awaited troop pullback in the war-torn east.

The withdrawal of forces is a precondition for the first face-to-face talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky.

The summit, whose date has yet to be set, will be mediated by French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Kiev said earlier it was ready to begin the withdrawal of troops near the village of Petrivske in the Donetsk region on Friday but the separatists insisted that the withdrawal be delayed until Saturday.

"The withdrawal of forces and hardware will start on Saturday... at 12:00" Kiev time (1000 GMT), Martin Sajdik, an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) envoy, said in a statement.

In a sign of persisting tensions, a Kiev soldier has been killed and another five wounded over the past two days along the volatile frontline, the army said.

The warring sides held two similar pullbacks in June and October.

The withdrawal of forces would be the "final precondition" for organising the four-way summit, Ukraine's Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said this week.

He has expressed hope that the meeting, the first at such a high level since 2016, could take place in Paris in November.

- 'Many questions' unresolved -

Since coming to power in May, comedian-turned-president Zelensky, 41, has sought to revive a peace process to end the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine that has claimed some 13,000 lives since 2014.

But those efforts have stalled as Zelensky's plan, including the troop pullback, has been strongly criticised in Kiev, especially by war veterans and nationalists.

"The Normandy format aims to renew dialogue, which can bring us closer to the complete end of the war," Zelensky said in comments released on Thursday, referring to the four-way talks.

The summit has been repeatedly postponed as previous attempts to organise pullbacks of troops have failed.

Russia has said it backs a new summit but refused to commit to a timetable.

"We want to hold the summit as soon as possible, but at the same time we consider this summit has to be well organised to ensure it gets the necessary results," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

He added it was "too early to say" whether the meeting could take place this year because "many questions" remained unresolved.

The warring sides on Saturday are set to signal their intention to withdraw by firing a flare before moving back a kilometre.

OSCE monitors will observe the disengagement which could be spread over several days.

If the pullback goes ahead, it raises the possibility of a withdrawal along the more than 400-kilometre (249-mile) frontline.

In the run-up to the summit, Ukrainian, Russian and separatist negotiators also agreed on a roadmap that envisages a special status for the separatist territories if they conduct free and fair elections under the Ukrainian constitution.

The war in eastern Ukraine broke out a month after Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Moscow of giving financial and military backing to separatists, which Russia denies.

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