Ukrainian ceasefire holding despite tension

Relatives help comfort a mother whose son was killed when a shell hit his school on in Artemivsk, Ukraine. Picture: Getty

Relatives help comfort a mother whose son was killed when a shell hit his school on in Artemivsk, Ukraine. Picture: Getty

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A CEASEFIRE that began yesterday in eastern Ukraine appeared to be holding, except for around the strategic railway hub of ­Debaltseve.

Heavy fog shrouding sodden fields muffled the sound of artillery, but regular shelling could still be heard from Luhanske, a town about nine miles to the north-west.

The ceasefire has kindled slender hopes of reprieve from the conflict between the government troops and Russian-backed separatists that has claimed more than 5,300 lives since it began in April.

Attention will be focused in the coming days on Debaltseve, where Ukrainian forces have for weeks been fending off severe onslaughts from the rebels. The town is a railway link between the main separatist-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

This latest cessation of hostilities was agreed after a marathon session of diplomacy last week that brought together the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France for talks in the capital of Belarus, Minsk.

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Under the deal, the progress of the ceasefire is to be monitored by observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin complained yesterday that rebels had barred OSCE monitors from reaching Debaltseve to report on developments there.

“It quite clearly shows who is in breach of the Minsk agreement,” Mr Klimkin said.

A spokesman for the government’s military operations in the east said yesterday was characterised by a relative degree of calm.

He added: “There has unfortunately not been a total cessation of fire, however.”

A Ukrainian army general staff spokesman said shelling was noted ten times, with all but one incident occurring in the Debaltseve area.

Another military spokesman, said nine Ukrainian troops had died over the previous day’s ­unrest.

The rebels have in turn accused the Ukrainians of deploying artillery in the Debaltseve area shortly after midnight.

They argued that since they have fully encircled Debaltseve, the territory should be deemed as being theirs.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, as he issued the ceasefire order at one minute after midnight Kiev time, said the road to the town remained open and that Ukrainian troops there had been resupplied with ammunition.

At an army checkpoint along the road to Debaltseve, a commander said the shelling appeared to have come from an area beyond Debaltseve controlled by “gangs other than the Russians and the separatists, such as Cossacks”.

The commander, who would identify himself only as Sanich, said these forces “submitted to no authority”.

However, Donetsk, the separatist stronghold, was quiet yesterday morning with no shelling from government forces.

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