EXPLAINER - Russia-backed rebels are a problem for Ukraine

MOSCOW (AP), -- Tensions are rising in Ukraine's east amid fears of a Russian invasion. There, Ukrainian forces are involved in a long-running conflict with Russia-backed separatists.

EXPLAINER - Russia-backed rebels are a problem for Ukraine

EXPLAINER - Russia-backed rebels are a problem for Ukraine

MOSCOW (AP), -- Tensions are rising in Ukraine's east amid fears of a Russian invasion. There, Ukrainian forces are involved in a long-running conflict with Russia-backed separatists.

Nearly 14,000 people were killed in fighting over eight years. There has been concern that Moscow might use the situation to justify an incursion.

Here's a look at what is happening in rebel-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine.

SEPARATIST REBELLION

After Ukraine's Moscow-friendly president was forced from office in February 2014 by massive protests, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. The Russian government then supported an insurgency in Ukraine's mostly Russian-speaking east. In April 2014, Russian-backed rebels took control of the Donetsk region and Luhansk regions. They declared the creation "people's republics" and fought Ukrainian troops and volunteers.

The separatist regions held a popular referendum to declare their independence and to try to join Russia the following month. Moscow refused to accept the motion in the hope that it would use the regions to maintain Ukraine in its orbit and stop it joining NATO. Ukraine and the West both accused Russia of supporting the rebels with weapons and troops. Moscow denies that and said any Russians who participated in the war in the east were volunteers.

On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was attacked by tanks, heavy artillery, and warplanes. All 298 passengers were killed. A probe by international experts concluded that the passenger plane was hit by a Russian-supplied missile from rebel-controlled territory. Moscow however denied any involvement.

PEACE AGREEMENTS

After the defeat of the Ukrainian troops at the Battle of Ilovaisk in August 2014 in Kiev, envoys from Kyiv and the rebels along with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) signed a truce in Minsk, Belarus, in September 2014.

This document proposed an OSCE-observed ceasefire, a pullback by all foreign fighters. It also included an exchange of hostages and prisoners. The document also promised an amnesty to rebels.

The agreement collapsed quickly and large-scale fighting resumed. This led to another major defeat of Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve between January and February 2015.

France and Germany made another peace deal, which was signed in Minsk by representatives from Russia, Ukraine and rebels in February 2015. The agreement envisaged a new ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons, and a series moves towards a political solution. Frozen CONFLICT

The 2015 peace agreement was a significant diplomatic coup for Russia. It obliged Ukraine to give special status to separatist regions. This allowed them to establish their own police force, and to have the right to appoint local judges and prosecutors. It was also stipulated that Ukraine would not regain control of the 200-kilometer (125 mile) border with Russia in rebel areas until they have self-rule and hold OSCE monitored local elections. This would almost certainly keep proMoscow rebels at power.

It is seen by many Ukrainians as a violation of national interests, and its implementation has been stalled.

Although the Minsk document ended full-scale fighting in the area, the situation remains tense. Regular skirmishes continue along the contact line.

Moscow's attempt to influence Ukraine's politics through rebel regions has been thwarted by the Minsk agreement. However, the conflict has effectively depleted Kyiv of its resources and stymied its desire to join NATO, which is enshrined within the Ukrainian constitution.

Moscow has also worked to protect its control over rebel areas by distributing more than 720,000 Russian passports, roughly one-fifth their population of around 3.6 million. Although it has provided financial and economic assistance to separatist territories, the aid was not sufficient to mitigate the huge damage caused by fighting or to strengthen the economy. Before the conflict, Ukraine's Gross Domestic Product was approximately 16% in the Donbas region.

EFFORTS TO REVIVE THE PEACE DEAL

France and Germany are making renewed efforts to promote compliance with the 2015 agreement amid rising tensions about the Russian troop concentration in Ukraine. This is in the hopes that it will help defuse the standoff.

Despite Paris and Berlin calling for it to be implemented, Ukrainian officials have reacted strongly to criticisms of the Minsk agreement and warned that it could spell doom for the country.

There have been no results from two rounds of talks between the presidential envoys for Russia, Ukraine and France in Paris and Berlin.

The lower house of the Russian parliament urged Vladimir Putin, Russian President, to recognize Donetsk's independence. Putin indicated, however that he was not inclined to make the move that would effectively end the Minsk agreement.

ESCALATION OF HOSTILITIES

The rebels and Ukraine were accused of intensifying shelling along the lines of contact in Donetsk/Luhansk on Thursday

Separatist authorities claimed Ukraine staged a "large-scale provocation" and that they retaliated.

Ukraine denied opening fire and said the separatists were shelling government-controlled areas with heavy artillery and mortars. Two civilians were injured when shells struck a Stanytsia Luhanska kindergarten. The Ukrainian military command also claimed that half the town was cut off from power.

Later Thursday, the OSCE's observer mission will offer an assessment of the situation.

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