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Cease-fire in war-torn eastern Ukraine begins after six years of conflict

Ukrainian and Russia-backed rebel forces in eastern Ukraine have begun a “full and comprehensive” cease-fire, a move that could lead to the end of a 6-year-old conflict.

Rebel officials said on Sunday they instructed their troops about the cease-fire and issued a decree banning the use of weapons. Ukraine’s military said their forces “have begun preparations” for the ceasefire too.

If upheld, it would “pave the way for implementing other clauses” of the Minsk peace deal, the office of Ukraine’s president said earlier this week, calling the cease-fire a “breakthrough.”

Brokered in 2015 by France and Germany, the Minsk peace plan aimed to resolve the conflict between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists that flared in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for the separatists.

The conflict has since killed more than 14,000.

The presidents of Russia and Ukraine both commended the cease-fire deal in a phone call on Sunday, underscoring the importance of implementing the agreements reached at the December summit in Paris.

Russia President Vladimir Putin however expressed concern over Kyiv’s calls to revise the Minsk agreements, and said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s “position about the non-alternative nature of the Minsk agreements should translate into real actions,” the Kremlin said.

Zelenskiy, in turn, stressed the need “for further practical steps” aimed at releasing Ukrainians who are imprisoned in “Donbas and Crimea, as well as in the Russian Federation”, according to a statement by his office.

The 2015 deal envisaged that Ukraine can regain control over its border with Russia in the separatist-held regions only after they are granted broad self-rule and hold local elections.

The accord helped reduce the extend of hostilities, but Ukrainian forces and the rebels have continued to exchange artillery salvos and gunfire.

In December, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany met in Paris for another round of talks, expressing support for the Minsk deal and agreeing to revive the peace process.

Zelenskiy, who won the 2019 election on promises to end the conflict, wanted Ukraine to get control of its border first before local elections, but the Kremlin has insisted the deal should be implemented without revisions.

The new cease-fire deal was reached on Wednesday by members of the Tripartite Contact Group that includes representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and was welcomed by EU officials.