- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - Ukrainian government forces will pull out small-caliber weapons from the war-torn east in two days’ time if the cease-fire holds, the defense minister said Thursday.

A military conflict between government forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine erupted in April 2014, leaving more than 8,000 people dead and 2 million displaced.

Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Tuesday agreed on the withdrawal of tanks and other weapons from the front line, with rebel leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk signing on to the agreement on Wednesday.

The deal reached Tuesday in Minsk, Belarus, by the so-called Contact Group calls for tanks, artillery and mortars up to 120 mm to be pulled back at least 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the front line. The withdrawal is expected to take 39 days.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak said on Thursday that Kiev will pull out all small-caliber weapons on Saturday if the ongoing cease-fire holds. A February deal calling for a pullback of large-caliber artillery has been largely observed.

“We are working to prepare the withdrawal,” Poltorak said. “Ukraine insists that we are complying with all provisions of the Minsk accords.”

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, who negotiated the February agreement, are meeting in Paris on Friday to try to push forward a political settlement for eastern Ukraine.

Speaking at a televised meeting at the Kremlin on Thursday, Putin blamed Kiev for flaunting the peace agreement, saying that Ukraine has failed to adopt an amnesty law and negotiate with the rebels on how to hold local elections in the east. Still, he sounded hopeful before Friday’s talks.

“It’s a long way before the crisis is resolved, but there are indications that give hope that it can be dealt with,” he said.

A French diplomatic official who asked not be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly said on Thursday that France supports autonomy for the east as long as it stays part of Ukraine. The official also said that Paris would speak out for lifting the sanctions if the peace accords are fulfilled.

Ukraine has recently adopted a bill devolving powers to the regions, which attracted the ire of nationalists who thought it was a concession for the separatists. Rebels in their turn were unhappy with the proposed reform, saying that it did not envisage autonomy for them.

Angela Charlton in Paris and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

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