(Adds comment from rebel official, background)
By Alessandra Prentice
KIEV, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a decree on Wednesday to extend sanctions on over 400 individuals and 90 legal entities in response to a decision by separatist rebels to set a date for what Kiev sees as “illegal elections”.
Violence is at its lowest ebb since the Minsk ceasefire agreement was signed seven months ago, but the latest altercation highlights how far the two sides are from finding common ground and a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Under terms of the much-violated peace deal, local elections were meant to be held in the separatist regions in tandem with the rest of the country, but Kiev has said they cannot take place due to security and monitoring concerns.
The separatists, who have unilaterally set up their own mini-republics, have instead scheduled their own ballot, the results of which Kiev is unlikely to recognise.
Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko signed a decree to hold the elections starting on Oct. 18, separatist press service DAN reported.
Ukrainian authorities will hold their local elections in most regions on Oct. 25, but will not conduct voting in some regions bordering separatist territory or in the rebel regions.
Poroshenko swiftly denounced the rebels’ move in a meeting with foreign ambassadors.
“The leaders of the so-called DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and LNR (Luhansk People’s Republic) have announced a decision, which they have taken in coordination with the Russian Federation, to hold fake illegal elections, which contradict the Minsk agreements,” he said.
“This risky and irresponsible decision requires our firm and coordinated reaction to the threat created to the Minsk agreements, such as prolongation and widening of sanctions.”
The so-called LNR has previously said it would hold elections on Nov. 2.
Poroshenko later signed a decree to apply or extend restrictive measures on people and entities “of Russia and other countries related to the annexation of Crimea and aggression in Donbass (east Ukraine),” according to a statement on the presidential website.
The list of sanctioned individuals posted on the presidential website mentions members of Russia’s parliament and senior rebel figures.
Companies affected include Russian airline Aeroflot , security company Kaspersky Lab and banks Gazprombank and Bank of Moscow.
The list includes a number of journalists, including three BBC employees based in Moscow and reporters for Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper and several Spanish outlets, as well as some Israeli correspondents.
Senior rebel official Denis Pushilin, who is the separatists’ envoy to the Minsk peace process and also was named on the published sanctions list, condemned the action by Ukrainian authorities.
“Sanctions essentially undermine the foundations of the Minsk agreements,” DAN quoted him as saying.
Fighting has frequently punctured the ceasefire over the past seven months, but violence has died down noticeably in the past week with the Ukrainian military reporting not one violation from the rebel side on Wednesday.
Close to 8,000 people have been killed since fighting erupted in April last year. Ukraine and NATO have accused Russia of supporting rebels with troops and weapons, a charge the Kremlin has denied. (Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs in Moscow; Editing by Alison Williams, Toni Reinhold)