Ukraine leader stresses importance of troops pullback

Kiev, Oct 10 (AFP/APP): Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Thursday a summit with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin would not take place if Kiev and separatist forces failed to pull back troops in the east.

The country’s 41-year-old president is gearing up to hold Western-mediated talks with Putin in Paris in an effort to revive a stalled peace process to end the five year separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

But those efforts appeared to have stalled as Kiev forces and separatist fighters have so far failed to pull back troops along the frontline in eastern Ukraine.

“If there is no pullback (of troops) there is no Normandy summit,” Zelensky told reporters, referring to four-way talks with Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Speaking during his first major news conference since taking office in May, Zelensky said Russia should help draw back Kremlin-backed separatist troops.

“They should act as guarantors — they are party to the Minsk process,” Zelensky said at a food court in the capital Kiev, referring to peace talks.

Ahead of the Paris summit, Ukrainian, Russian and separatist negotiators agreed on a roadmap that envisages special status for separatist territories if they conduct free and fair elections under the Ukrainian constitution.

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But the plan sparked anger in Ukraine, with many critics saying the proposal favours Russia.

At the weekend, around 10,000 people including Zelensky’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko protested in Kiev against the peace plan, in the first major demonstrations against Zelensky’s policies.

Ultra-nationalists have been particularly critical of Zelensky’s peace plan and some have threatened to resist his orders in the east.

The president appeared to target them during his news conference, implying that “various people” from both sides did not want the pullback of troops to go ahead.

Zelensky has pledged he will not betray Ukraine’s interests and reiterated Thursday that Kiev should fully control the country’s eastern border with Russia.

The ex-Soviet country of 45 million people has gone through two popular uprisings in two decades and has been mired in a war with separatists since 2014.

The conflict — the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War — broke out after Russia annexed Crimea in March, 2014 and has claimed some 13,000 lives.

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