Fighting in east Ukraine has subsided but not stopped since a ceasefire came into effect, the warring parties say,reports Reuters. Spokesmen for both the government and the pro-Russian rebels said some shelling had continued, mainly around the besieged town of Debaltseve. But both sides say the truce that came into effect at midnight (22:00 GMT Saturday) is largely holding.
Fierce battles raged near the Debaltseve – a key transport hub – in the hours leading up to the truce. Analysts point out that previous truces initially appeared to be holding, and say the next 48 hours are critical. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel brokered the agreement on Thursday after lengthy talks in the Belarusian capital Minsk.
President Poroshenko has warned that Ukraine will not “turn the other cheek” if the deal is violated. In a televised address at the time the ceasefire took hold, he said Ukrainian troops in Debeltseve had been resupplied with ammunition. The US, which has warned it could begin supplying arms to Ukraine if the peace initiative failed, claimed on Saturday it had evidence that the Russian military had deployed weaponry around Debeltseve – contrary to Moscow denials that it is playing any direct role in the conflict.
Officials say more than 5,400 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine in April, but the UN believes the actual death toll to be much higher. ‘Last chance’
On Sunday morning, Ukraine military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov said the truce was being “observed in general”. “Shelling [by rebels] has been not regular and [has been] localised,” he said, according to Reuters news agency. Another spokesman, Anatoly Stelmakh, said there had been some 10 incidents of shelling since the truce took hold, mainly around Debaltseve.
He said Ukrainian forces had “repelled a few attacks” in Shyrokyne, near the strategic southern port city of Mariupol. He claimed hundreds of “terrorists” had been killed in the previous two days. A rebel spokesman concurred that the truce was largely holding for the time being. “The ceasefire is largely observed, but the enemy artillery is shelling our positions near Debaltseve,” and the rebel-held town of Vuhlehirsk, Eduard Basurin, spokesman for the “defence ministry” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) told Russian news agency Interfax.