KIEV - Ukrainian peace efforts stalled Wednesday after pro-Russian insurgents called their own elections in defiance of a deal under which they and the Ukrainian army began withdrawing heavy weapons after five months of war.

Separatists in the Russian-speaking industrial east Tuesday brushed off President Petro Poroshenko’s limited self-rule offer and announced plans to set up independent parliaments in self-organised polls on November 2. The declaration amounted to a slap in the face of Poroshenko - a pro-Western leader who since his May election has been trying to quell a revolt that has devastated Ukraine’s economy and revived a Cold War-era mistrust between Russia and the West.

The 48-year-old chocolate baron has issued no comment since seeing his high-stakes plan to resolve a crisis that has killed more than 3,200 people so openly challenged just a week from the day it was unveiled.

Poroshenko had proposed that rebel-held parts of the industrial east hold local council elections on December 7 that would help war-scarred towns and cities restore basic services but not push ahead with any independence claims. But the Kremlin appeared ready to rev up the tensions still further by focusing state media on claims of the bodies of four tortured civilians being discovered in an eastern coal mine that allegedly had served as a Ukrainian military base.

The unconfirmed reports topped the headlines on Kremlin-run TV networks that provide most Russians with news. They noted that the head of parliament’s foreign affairs committee intended “to raise the issue with the international community”. Both the press office of Ukraine’s eastern campaign and the National Guard - a part-volunteer force Moscow frequently brands as “fascists” - denied ever having control of the Donetsk region mine.

 Ukrainian defence spokesman Andriy Lysenko dismissed the allegations as “a well-planned provocation”. A resumption in shelling prevented AFP attempts to visit the site. Both Kiev and its Western allies fear the Kremlin is trying to turn the east of Ukraine into a “frozen conflict” similar to those that have already given Moscow effective control over parts of the ex-Soviet nations Georgia and Moldova.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk - seen by some analysts as the leader of Kiev’s hawkish “war camp” - is expected to raise these concerns when he addresses the UN General Assembly in New York later Wednesday. The session will also see US Secretary of State John Kerry press Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the implementation of a reinforced truce agreement that all sides signed up to in the Belarussian capital Minsk on Saturday.

The nine-point memorandum has helped ease some of the deadliest fighting, though daily clashes continue around hotspots such as the international airport on the northwestern outskirts of rebel-held industrial hub of Donetsk. That city’s administration said one shell hit a building overnight and destroyed two apartments. It reported no casualties and said all fighting had stopped by Wednesday morning.

Both sides have also begun pulling back their biggest guns and tanks from the front line in order to establish a 30-kilometre (19-mile) buffer zone that could be overseen by monitors from the OSCE pan-European security group.

Meanwhile, NATO has observed a significant withdrawal of Russian forces from inside Ukraine, but many Russian troops remain stationed nearby, an alliance military spokesman said on Wednesday.

“There has been a significant pullback of Russian conventional forces from inside Ukraine, but many thousands are still deployed in the vicinity of the border,” Lieutenant-Colonel Jay Janzen said in an e-mailed response to a request from Reuters for comment.

“Some Russian troops remain inside Ukraine. It is difficult to determine the number, as pro-Russian separatists control several border crossings and troops are routinely moving back and forth across the border. Further, Russian special forces are operating in Ukraine, and they are difficult to detect,” he said.

On Sept. 4, a NATO military officer said Russia had several thousand combat troops and hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles inside Ukraine and around 20,000 troops close to the Ukrainian border.

As recently as a week ago, NATO said it believed Russia still had around 1,000 soldiers inside Ukraine despite some cuts in troop numbers since a ceasefire began on Sept. 5.

Janzen said there appeared to be a reduction in incidents, including artillery fire, between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists.

“NATO welcomes these positive signs, and encourages all parties to continue to work towards a peaceful solution to this crisis,” he said, while still expressing NATO’s concern about the large numbers of Russian forces deployed close to the eastern Ukraine border.