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Ukraine government, rebels withdraw heavy weapons from front line, but suspicion lingers

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NOVOAMVROSIIVSKE, Ukraine — Ukrainian and Russian-backed separatist forces drew back some heavy weapons from the front line in the east Friday in compliance with a cease-fire deal, although officials in Kiev accused rebels of falling short of requirements.

Separatist fighters moved rocket launchers to a location 70 kilometers (43 miles) back from the line of contact with Ukrainian forces as required by the peace agreement. Associated Press journalists in the morning followed four trucks carrying Grad launchers from the rebel stronghold of Donetsk to a cement factory in the village of Novoamvrosiivske, near the Russian border.

AP reporters also saw Ukrainian troops pulling back 100 mm anti-tank guns from the front line near the town of Artemivsk. The required withdrawal distance for weapons varies depending on their power and range.

The weapons seen by AP represent only a minute fraction of the firepower believed to be at either side's disposal and an exhaustive assessment by international monitors is expected in the coming days.

The pullback of heavy weapons was supposed to have started over a week ago under a deal agreed by the leaders of Russia and Ukraine to end fighting in Ukraine that has killed nearly 5,800 people since April.

The process is being overseen by hundreds of monitors with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has complained that the warring sides have delayed and impeded the weapons withdrawal.

Separatist officials say that they have been withdrawing arms for several days. There has been no independent confirmation of that claim. Ukrainian officials announced the start to the pullback of their weapons on Thursday.

PHOTO: A boy aims an automatic gun given to him by a Ukrainian serviceman in the village of Chermalyk, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015. In a long-awaited development, Ukrainian forces and separatist fighters both announced Thursday they are moving heavy weapons from the front line in eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
A boy aims an automatic gun given to him by a Ukrainian serviceman in the village of Chermalyk, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015. In a long-awaited development, Ukrainian forces and separatist fighters both announced Thursday they are moving heavy weapons from the front line in eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Ukrainian military spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko said that separatists were withdrawing only part of their weaponry.

They are "pulling back their equipment only partially and over a distance that can be covered in the space of 30 minutes," he said. Lysenko said rebels had moved around a column of military hardware, including Grad launchers, from Donetsk to a location near the government-controlled port city of Mariupol.

Lysenko provided no evidence for his claims.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said at a military cadet graduation ceremony Friday that the country's army would swiftly rebuff any hostilities if unrest resumes.

"Our troops are at all times prepared to return equipment to their former positions and quickly fend off the enemy," he said.

Although quantities of artillery and rocket launchers are being withdrawn, troops with small arms are still maintaining their positions. Clashes have notably diminished in recent days, signaling that progress has been made in upholding the declared cessation of hostilities.

Still, Lysenko said Friday that three government servicemen had been killed and another seven injured over the previous day.


Leonard contributed from Kiev, Ukraine.

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