Ukrainian army tanks roll from the front line near the village of Krymske, Luhansk region, Eastern Ukraine, Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. A summit reviving a European push to bring peace to eastern Ukraine ended Friday with a call for the delay of contentious rebel plans to hold local elections this month and for both sides to begin a promised withdrawal of smaller-caliber weapons. (AP Photo/Inna Varenytsia)
MOSCOW (AP) — Officials in rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine announced Tuesday they will postpone local elections that were going to be held shortly, sidestepping a contentious issue that had blocked progress toward a resolution for the war in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s president and Russian lawmakers hailed the move as a step toward peace. More than 8,000 people have been killed since April 2014 during fighting between Ukrainian government troops and the Russia-backed separatists.
A statement Tuesday from Denis Pushilin and Vladislav Deinego said the rebel-run areas of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces would put off their local votes until Feb. 21. The two men are the rebel envoys to the Minsk Group peace talks mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Donetsk had planned an election on Oct. 18 and Luhansk was going to vote on Nov. 1.
In exchange for postponing the vote, the separatists say Ukraine must grant a special status to the mostly Russian-speaking region, broadly called Donbass, as envisioned by Minsk peace accord.
“This paves the way for Ukraine’s return to Donbass by helping to conduct the election in accordance with Ukrainian law, on the basis of OSCE standards and certainly without the occupation forces,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner also welcomed the rebels’ decision.
“People living in separatist-controlled areas deserve to pick their local officials in elections that meet international standards, are compliant with Ukrainian law and monitored by the OSCE,” he told reporters in Washington.
Leonid Slutsky, a top member of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s parliament, said he welcomed the move “but I have doubts about how much capacity Poroshenko has to fulfill his obligations.”
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