Luhanske (Ukraine): Ukrainian government troops and Russia-backed rebels failed today to start pulling back heavy weaponry from the front line in eastern Ukraine as a deadline passed to do so.
Under a ceasefire agreement negotiated by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France last week, the warring sides were to begin withdrawing heavy weapons from the front line today. Both sides indicated yesterday, however, that they would begin the pullout only after the other party does so.
While the fighting either stopped or subsided in other parts of war-torn eastern Ukraine, the situation around the key transportation hub of Debaltseve remained tense today.
Artillery rounds fired from Ukrainian government positions on the road were seen leading to rebel positions around Debaltseve. Sustained shelling was heard in the area all morning, some coming from Grad rocket launchers.
Ukrainian military spokesman Anatoliy Stelmakh said in televised comments early today that the separatists continued to attack their positions overnight and that the pullout hinges on the cease-fire being fully observed.
"As soon as the militants cease fire, the Ukrainian side will begin to withdraw heavy weaponry from the frontline," he said.
Ukrainian officials today reported artillery strikes overnight around Debaltseve while the situation in the rest of the war zone appeared to be calm.
Rebel mouthpiece Donetsk News Agency quoted rebel officials saying today morning they have not observed any violations of the ceasefire since 8 pm yesterday, while the city hall in the regional capital Donetsk said there was no fighting around it overnight.
The Russian news agency RIA Novosti quoted rebel leader Andrei Purgin as saying that the separatists plan to discuss the possible withdrawal of the weaponry later today with representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the group charged with monitoring the ceasefire, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The leaders of Ukraine, Russia and Germany discussed the ceasefire in a phone call late yesterday. Chancellor Angela Merkel's office reported that the three of them agreed on "concrete steps to enable an observation" of the situation in Debaltseve by the OSCE. It did not elaborate on what these steps could be. OSCE representatives did not manage to get to Debaltseve yesterday because of heavy fighting there.
Merkel and Ukrainian President Poroshenko appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to use his influence on the separatists to ensure that they stop the fighting.