By Andrei Makhovsky
MINSK (Reuters) - Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists agreed on Wednesday to withdraw troops from three small towns on the front line in eastern Ukraine, a pilot de-escalation project that is part of the latest push to get a much-violated ceasefire to stick.
Under the terms of the agreement, armed forces from both sides are banned from entering the three areas, which are four square kilometers each in size. The withdrawal must start within a month and be completed within three days.
The move follows a new truce on Sept. 15 that spurred hopes for the peace process, although it failed to stem all the violence in the region. The conflict has killed over 9,600 soldiers, civilians and pro-Russian rebels since April 2014.
The plan was first announced during a visit by German and French foreign ministers to Kiev last week.
The withdrawal will be observed along three sections of the 480 km front line, in the small towns of Stanytsia Luhanska and Zolote in the Luhansk region and Petrovske in the Donetsk region, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier welcomed the agreement but said more work was needed.
"We have had to learn that neither pronouncements of good will nor commitments about the withdrawal of weapons were sufficient to achieve a lasting ceasefire," he told the newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. "Additional areas (for withdrawals of troops) must be agreed soon to ensure the disengagement of forces along the entire line of confrontation."
Most of the terms of the original Minsk deal, including restoring control of Ukraine's eastern borders to Kiev and holding regional elections, have yet to be implemented.
"There are no guarantees even now," Steinmeier said. "If the parties to the conflict are unwilling to stick to already signed agreements, there will be no progress."
While limited in geographic scope, the latest agreement is the first time the sides have committed to withdraw light arms. High-caliber weapons are already meant to have been withdrawn to secure holding areas, although the OSCE regularly reports violations on both sides.
Separatist officials welcomed the deal, the separatist news website DAN reported.
The document could help "shift the situation from truce to peace," DAN quoted rebel envoy Denis Pushilin as saying.
(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; editing by Matthias Williams, Larry King)