Ukraine worried about Russia's pullout from monitoring team

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MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Ukraine on Wednesday criticized Russia's decision to withdraw its military observers from a joint group monitoring the truce in eastern Ukraine, saying it could fuel hostilities.

Russia announced the move earlier this week, saying that Ukraine was putting up obstacles and restrictions obstructing Russian officers' work and recently introduced new demands that made their further involvement in the group impossible.

The development is the latest sign of heightened tensions in the area, where fighting has spiked in recent days. Observers from a special monitoring mission for eastern Ukraine at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe voiced concern Tuesday about the fresh violence, saying that the number of cease-fire violations increased by 35 percent in the past week compared with a week earlier.

Darka Olifer, a spokeswoman for Ukraine's ex-President Leonid Kuchma who represents the country in talks with Russia and separatists in eastern Ukraine, said in a statement posted Wednesday on Facebook that the Russian withdrawal of military observers violated Moscow's obligations and raised the risks of a military escalation.

Olifer's statement followed a meeting of a contact group involving representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the rebels in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Olifer said after the talks that the parties declared an intention to maintain a cease-fire for the holiday season starting Dec. 23 and speed up efforts to exchange prisoners.

Numerous previous cease-fires quickly failed and attempts to negotiate the exchange of prisoners have stalled in the past.

Fighting between Russia-backed separatists and government troops in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 since 2014. Peace accords brokered by France and Germany in 2015 helped decrease the scale of fighting but failed to stop it altogether. Political settlement stipulated by the accords has not been implemented either.

A spokesman for Germany's Foreign Ministry voiced concern about Russia's move to withdraw its military officers from the monitoring group, warning that it could have "significant consequences for the civilian population in conflict areas of eastern Ukraine."

Rainer Breul told reporters in Berlin that the Joint Center on Control and Coordination plays an important role in facilitating and monitoring local cease-fires, allowing for mine clearance and maintenance on vital infrastructure.

Berlin urged both sides to find a solution to ensure the monitoring group can operate. It also called on all sides to strengthen the fragile cease-fire and "reduce human suffering."

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