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Ukraine Starts Withdrawing Heavy Weapons From Front Lines

A cease-fire that seemed on the verge of collapse is showing signs of taking hold in Ukraine, where the government says it's withdrawing artillery weapons from the front lines of battle with Russian-backed separatists and their allies. The news comes as combat deaths have fallen to zero.

In a statement posted on its website, Ukraine's military says the withdrawal of 100-millimeter guns "is the first step" in a process that will be monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation.

"The separatists say they have begun withdrawing some artillery," NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow, "but international monitors say they have been unable to confirm that."

The drop in combat deaths represents the first time in more than a month that no one has been reported killed in the fighting that has raged despite a truce that went into effect Feb. 15. There have been no reports of combat deaths for two consecutive days.

The developments have given new life to a cease-fire in tatters after separatists seized the city of Debaltseve amid heavy shelling. In recent days, Ukraine has accused the separatists of setting their sights on the port city of Mariupol as a new target.

That threat prompted France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to issue a warning to Russia.

"I told my counterpart Sergei Lavrov that such a move would mean Russia wants to make a link with Crimea, and that would change everything," he said, as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reported.

From Moscow, Corey notes that international monitors face a complex task:

"The OSCE says it needs to know how many weapons are being withdrawn, what kinds of weapons they are — and most importantly, where they're going to wind up. Will they be stored somewhere out of range, or just moved to some other part of the battle zone?"

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.