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Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Secretary General Lamberto Zannier speaks during a news conference in Tbilisi, March 9, 2015. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili(reuters_tickers)
By Shadia Nasralla and Andreas Rinke
VIENNA (Reuters) - The head of the OSCE said on Friday it was imperative that Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists withdraw heavy weapons from the eastern front line, as the Ukrainian military warned of a fresh escalation of the conflict.
Heavy weapons are still being used in eastern Ukraine, said Lamberto Zannier, the Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors the conflict.
A week-long surge at the end of January and start of February saw the heaviest shelling in two years, refocusing global attention on a simmering conflict that strained relations between Russia and the West to the worst degree since the Cold War era.
Zannier told Reuters in an interview that a cease fire was agreed in principle for the area on Feb. 1, but it has only had limited success.
"The intensity of hostilities is much, much lower compared to the beginning of the month, but still too much. And what we want to see is really the withdrawal of the heavy weapons and we have very little evidence that this is taking place," he said.
Zannier, whose organisation has 600 monitors in eastern Ukraine, called for both sides to be pushed backwards from positions established at the time of the Minsk accord in early 2015.
"There was a line that was somehow defined in Minsk but that line doesn't really correspond to what is on the ground because there are movements. There are some who say we should return to that line but of course this becomes complicated," Zannier said.
"The best thing is to look at where the sides are and really have them push backwards from where they are. I think we need to be pragmatic and realistic in promoting this. We don't want to talk too much about lines. That line is nothing in a way."
Zannier also said in areas where fighting has ceased, the OSCE, which includes Russia and the United States, has been hampered by mines, which neither side of the conflict are removing.
To protect its unarmed employees, the OSCE has used drones to monitor the front line in Ukraine. One was shot down immediately after detecting a Russian-made anti-aircraft system in rebel-held territory, Zannier said.
The Ukrainian military said on Friday it saw signs of an escalation in fighting. "At the moment another escalation continues around Avdiyivka," military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said in a briefing.
Three Ukrainian servicemen were killed and 10 wounded by artillery fire on Thursday, while a civilian was killed when a mortar struck an apartment building in Avdiyivka, he said.
(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets in KIEV; Editing by Toby Davis)