Ukraine truce largely observed - except around flashpoint town

Shelling and mortar fire thundered around a flashpoint town in east Ukraine on Sunday despite a new, shaky ceasefire largely observed along the rest of the frontline separating Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists.

AFP| Last Updated: Feb 16, 2015, 01:03 AM IST

Yenakieve: Shelling and mortar fire thundered around a flashpoint town in east Ukraine on Sunday despite a new, shaky ceasefire largely observed along the rest of the frontline separating Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists.

The sporadic bombardments targeting the key railway hub of Debaltseve -- where thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are mostly surrounded by the rebels -- could be heard kilometres (miles) away. Their intensity was far less than before the truce came into effect at 2200 GMT Saturday.

Ukraine`s military said that across the entire conflict zone, its soldiers` positions had come under fire from the rebels 60 times on Sunday with Debaltseve "the main hotspot".

The pro-Russian insurgents "shot using every kind of weapon, including Grad (multiple) rockets," military spokesman Anatoliy Stelmakh told AFP.

"The rebels tried to storm our positions three times," he said, stressing that the Ukrainian forces were "only responding to attacks" and not instigating any themselves.

Stelmakh added, however, that "in general, the amount of Grad rocket fire has gone down across the whole conflict zone". 

The separatists for their part said the truce was largely holding, but accused the other side of occasional breaches.

In Paris, French President Francois Hollande declared that observance of the ceasefire was "generally satisfactory" despite some "local incidents".

Hollande -- who, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, had helped mediate the truce agreed on Thursday -- was speaking after a four-way telephone conversation with Merkel and the leaders of Ukraine and Russia.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko emphasised in the call that the ceasefire should be implemented all along the frontline, "including the area of Debaltseve," according to a statement from his office.

The truce is meant to be the first step of a peace plan aimed at ending 10 months of conflict that have claimed more than 5,480 lives.

The next phase is scheduled to see both sides pull their heavy weaponry back from the frontline within 48 hours of the ceasefire coming into effect, theoretically from 2200 GMT Monday if the truce is deemed to be fully in force. 

A prisoner exchange is then to be made, and Kiev afterwards is to start taking back control from the rebels of its 400-kilometre (250-mile) border with Russia, following local elections in the east by the end of the year and negotiations over greater autonomy for separatist-held territories.But there is little trust on all sides. Scepticism reigns after the collapse of a similar ceasefire agreed in September.

AFP journalists near Debaltseve heard fire from big artillery guns, mortars, machineguns and snipers throughout the day. They were unable to get into the town because of the hostilities.

"There was firing all night and all day," said a rebel commander, Oleg, at an insurgent base in an abandoned mine near Debaltseve. Around him, among destroyed buildings, tanks were stationed in firing positions.

"The ceasefire is just to organise a rotation resupply of the troops," he said, as heavy weapons and small arms fire kept up a racket of detonations.

"We`re just waiting for the order to launch the assault on the town, which will no doubt happen in a few days," Oleg added.

The strategic transport hub of Debaltseve is seen as the position most likely to cause the latest ceasefire to fail. 

Poroshenko has already warned that the truce was "threatened" by the separatist action there, while rebels have said that any attempt to move the 5,000 government troops they claim to have cornered in Debaltseve will be promptly countered.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mandated to monitor the truce say rebels have blocked their access to the town. 

The ceasefire was "overall respected" but there was an exchange of artillery around Debaltseve, according to the OSCE. 

In Donetsk, a major rebel-held city in the east not far from Debaltseve, residents welcomed the halt in fighting as the sound of constant bombardments died down. But they remained wary.

"I have trouble believing that the ceasefire will be respected for long," pensioner Andrei, 77, told AFP.

"But even if it lasts a few days, then that isn`t bad."International pressure is high on both sides to stick to the latest deal and prevent an escalation of the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War.

Washington and Kiev accuse Moscow of fuelling last-gasp fighting that occurred just ahead of Saturday`s ceasefire by pouring arms across the border to help rebels grab territory -- claims Moscow denies.

The EU has warned it could toughen its sanctions on Russia if the situation falls apart, while US President Barack Obama has warned he could start supplying arms to Ukraine if the truce collapses.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was said to have reaffirmed his commitment to the peace deal in a call with Merkel and Hollande.

The UN Security Council is expected to meet in emergency session Sunday to shore up the truce.