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Ukrainian talks produce agreement on buffer zone, pullout of foreign fighters, heavy weapons

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MINSK, Belarus — Participants in Ukrainian peace talks agreed early Saturday to create a buffer zone to separate government troops and pro-Russian militants and withdraw foreign fighters and heavy weapons from the area of conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The deal reached by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the Moscow-backed rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe marked an effort to add substance to a cease-fire agreement that was signed on Sept. 5 but has been frequently broken by clashes.

The new deal signed after hours of talks that dragged late into the night envisages setting up a buffer zone that would be 30 kilometers (19 miles) wide. They said after the talks that dragged into the night and ended early Saturday in the Belarusian capital Minsk that all heavy weapons should be withdrawn from that zone.

The negotiators also reached agreement on the withdrawal of all foreign fighters and mercenaries — a diplomatic reference to Russians fighting alongside the rebels.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fueling the insurgency in the mostly Russian-speaking Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in eastern Ukraine with weapons and soldiers. Moscow has denied that, saying that Russians who joined the mutiny did so as private citizens.

Pressed to comment about the agreement on the withdrawal of foreign fighters, Russian Ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov, who represented Moscow in the talks, said that "those whom we call mercenaries are present on both sides."

PHOTO: Residents sweep up debris at the cultural center that was shelled in late August, in the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. The rebel-held city of Donetsk is holding a city-wide clean-up day after months of shelling in eastern Ukraine, sending prisoners out to help remove the debris. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
Residents sweep up debris at the cultural center that was shelled in late August, in the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. The rebel-held city of Donetsk is holding a city-wide clean-up day after months of shelling in eastern Ukraine, sending prisoners out to help remove the debris. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

He said that the OSCE should control the pullout of foreign fighters.

Heidi Tagliavini, an OSCE envoy at the talks, said that the group's monitors will be deployed to the buffer zone to monitor the deal.

The negotiators have left aside the most controversial issue — the future status of the rebel regions.

The Ukrainian parliament this week passed a law giving a broad autonomy to the areas controlled by the rebels, including the power to hold local elections and form their own police force.

Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of rebels in Donetsk, said that Ukraine and the rebels have various interpretation of the law and the talks should continue.

In Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city in east Ukraine, the separatists held a city-wide cleanup day Friday, sending prisoners out to help remove the debris that has piled up after months of shelling.

Throughout the cease-fire, periods of peace have been interrupted by intermittent gunfire. The same was true Friday, when the Donetsk city council said in a statement that one person was killed by shelling during the night. Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the National Security and Defense Council, told journalists in Kiev that two servicemen were killed in the past day during the fighting.

The streets were quiet Friday as the rebels called for a cleanup. In one school that was shelled in late August, four Ukrainian prisoners guarded by armed rebels were sweeping up debris.

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PHOTO: Pro-Russian rebels remove an unexploded grenade in the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. One person was killed by overnight shelling in a neighborhood in the north of the city, where fighting centered around the government-held airport has spilled over into residential areas. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
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