Ukrainian government forces on Friday announced a week-long cease-fire in their fight against pro-Russian separatists in the country's east, the interior ministry said.
The ministry's website said the cease-fire would continue until June 27. It quoted President Petro Poroshenkoas saying that the order did not mean Ukrainian forces would not fight back if attacked.
Ukraine’s new president called it a first step in a peace plan designed to end the deadly pro-Russian insurgency. The Ukrainian government publicized some of the plan's provisions on Friday, ahead of the official announcement.
The plan calls for a unilateral cease-fire that would give rebels a chance to disarm or leave the country. It also includes establishing a corridor allowing separatist fighters to leave Ukraine for Russia, the creation of a 10-kilometer buffer zone along the Ukrainian-Russian border, decentralization of power in the country and protecting the use of the Russian language.
Poroshenko emphasized the need for effective border control and the release of hostages seized by the rebels.
According to Valeriy Chaly, deputy head of the presidential administration, the plan also calls for early local and parliamentary elections.
Addressing reporters in Kyiv, Chaly called the plan dynamic and subject to change, explaining that is also includes a $1.5 billion development and jobs provision that he described as “absolutely necessary” to addressing the high unemployment that has been cited as a primary reason for conflict.
Chaly said the plan has received support from international organizations, including the European Union and United Nations, and that major international allies such as the United States have been informed of its provisions and schedule.
The Ukrainian president discussed details of the plan on the phone Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to the French news agency AFP, Poroshenko sought to shore up the Kremlin’s support for a truce in the fighting.
The Interfax-Ukraine news agency on Friday quoted Valery Bolotov, a separatist leader who heads the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic, as saying the rebels would not disarm until government forces completely withdrew from eastern Ukraine.
The government said fresh clashes erupted in eastern Ukraine Friday after seven soldiers were killed in fighting late Thursday. According to press reports and a video posted to the Internet, a pro-Russian separatist armored column made up of several tanks and armored personnel carriers was seen moving in the Donetsk region.
Russian reaction, troop buildup
According to a Reuters news report, the Kremlin released a statement vowing to review Poroshenko's plan. However, the statement was critical of the week-long cease-fire.
"This is not an invitation to peace and negotiations but an ultimatum to militias in the southeast of Ukraine to lay down their arms," the Kremlin statement said. "So far one major element is missing — a proposal to start negotiations.''
A seperate statement released by Russia's foreign ministry cited an attack at a Novoshakhtinsk border checkpoint that injured a customs officer, calling it a "direct provocation," Reuters reported.
While Putin has reportedly reacted favorably to Poroshenko's cease-fire proposal, Ukrainian and Western officials say Moscow has resumed its troop build-up on the border.
Deputy White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said Friday that the United States is concerned about the buildup of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine.
His comment came a day after NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said "at least a few thousand more" Russian troops had been deployed to the border region, a moved he called a "very regrettable step backwards."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a deployment of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border had been planned in advance and was designed to reinforce Russia's border security.
A NATO military officer who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity told VOA, "These troops don't appear to be engaged in border-patrol duties. Rather, they appear to be concentrating in staging areas and preparing and awaiting future orders."
Earlier in the conflict, up to 40,000 Russian troops had been deployed near the border with Ukraine.
Signing date set for EU agreement
Poroshenko announced Thursday that he would sign an association agreement with the European Union on June 27.
The refusal by Ukraine's former pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, to sign the EU association agreement last November triggered the unrest that led to his ouster earlier this year.
Anita Powell contributed to this story from Kyiv. Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.