Ukraine\’s President Petro Poroshenko signed a landmark trade and economic agreement with the European Union in Brussels Friday, and said he would decide later whether to extend the unilateral cease-fire he announced a week ago in the military campaign against pro-Russian separatists.
Poroshenko said Ukraine had paid "the highest possible price" to sign the free trade agreement with the EU, which he called "historic."
Russia criticized Ukraine\’s move. Russian President Vladimir Putin — who on Friday called for a long-term cease-fire in Ukraine as a condition for talks between Ukrainian authorities and pro-Russia separatists — said the agreement has forced Ukrainians into an "artificial" choice between loyalties to Europe or Russia.
Controversy over the agreement lies at the heart of the current crisis.
It led to the February ouster of Ukraine\’s former pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. In March, Moscow annexed Ukraine\’s Crimean peninsula, where loyalty to Russia runs high. The conflict spread to eastern Ukraine, where deadly clashes broke out between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian security forces. The United States and EU imposed several sets of sanctions against individuals and companies, mainly Russian, in response to Crimea\’s annexation and Russian involvement in the unrest in eastern Ukraine.
The U.S., European and Ukrainian governments have repeatedly called on Russia to prevent militants and weapons from flowing across its border with Ukraine to the separatists.
The Ukrainian government\’s week-long cease-fire is set to expire Friday night, local time. Poroshenko told reporters in Brussels that he would decide after returning to Kyiv whether to extend it by three days.
Some rebels said they would observe a truce concurrent with Kyiv’s cease-fire, but violence in eastern Ukraine has continued over the past week
At the Brussels summit, EU leaders set a Monday deadline for Putin to demonstrate support for calming the unrest in Ukraine.
In a statement issued Friday, the 28 leaders called for Moscow to meet several conditions, including visibly supporting the Ukrainian government\’s proposed peace plan, the French news agency AFP reported. Ukraine\’s government also should be granted oversight of three major border checkpoints, Reuters reported.
Two other terms according to the Associated Press, include setting up a means of verifying the cease-fire and securing the release of all captives.
If Putin fails to meet those conditions, Russia could face "further significant restrictive measures," the statement said, according to AFP.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly has warned Putin that the EU will consider a new round of sanctions against Moscow if it doesn\’t cooperate.
The Obama administration says it also is ready to impose new sanctions if Moscow fails to take action to de-escalate the crisis in eastern Ukraine. The administration said it has delayed implementation as it presses for unified support from European and U.S. manufacturers for the measures.
Meanwhile, rebels freed four international observers they\’d seized in Ukraine last month, Reuters reported. Eight representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had been detained while monitoring an agreement aimed at calming the conflict.
The four were released to colleagues at a hotel early on Friday, Reuters said. .
With the end to an official cease-fire in Ukraine looming on Friday, witnesses said thousands of Ukrainians lined up at a Russian border crossing late Thursday, driving cars packed with personal belongings, in hopes of fleeing violence in eastern Ukraine. The United Nations refugee agency said Friday that some 110,000 people have fled to Russia from Ukraine, while some 54,000 Ukrainians have been displaced within the country.
Source – VOA and agencies