DONETSK, Ukraine: Intensive artillery fire broke out on Sunday near the rebel-held city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, apparently breaking an internationally brokered ceasefire between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government, an Agence France-Presse reporter said.
The sound of explosions began at 9:00 am (6:00 am Manila time) and appeared to come from the area of Donetsk airport, a once important Ukrainian air hub which was captured by rebels in January and has been destroyed in fighting.
Under a ceasefire that took effect February 15 both sides were meant to withdraw all heavy weapons and to stop shooting. Sporadic clashes have continued near Donetsk and the government-held port city of Mariupol, but overall the rate of fighting has sharply declined.
Three pro-Russian separatists have been killed in fresh clashes near the strategic Ukrainian-held port of Mariupol despite a shaky truce aimed at ending nearly a year of fighting, rebels said on Friday.
“Three fighters were killed and six wounded” in the village of Shyrokyne, the official rebel news agency said on its website.
The separatists accused government troops of flouting a ceasefire signed last month by carrying out 33 attacks over the last 24 hours.
The attacks were mainly focused on Shyrokyne and the airport in the rebel bastion of Donetsk, according to the agency. Donetsk fell under separatist control in January after months of fierce fighting.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said three Ukrainian troops had been injured over the last 24 hours, and claimed separatists had also violated the peace deal by using heavy Grad rockets for “the first time in a month”.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe stationed on government-held territory near the village observed “three Ukrainian Armed Forces tanks firing approximately 90 tank rounds” at rebel positions in Shyrokyne.
They also said 82mm mortar shells were fired from rebel-held territory.
In line with the Minsk ceasefire deal signed last month, fighting has died down along most of the frontline as both parties say they have withdrawn heavy arms to create a buffer zone ranging from 50 kilometers (30 miles) to 140 kilometers, depending on the range of the weapons.
Mariupol is the largest city still under government control in the conflict zone. Many Ukrainians fear the steel-making hub could be the target of a new rebel offensive as it would help form a land bridge between Russian-annexed Crimea and the border.
Situated around 10 kilometers east of the city on the Azov Sea coast, Shyrokyne has been the scene of heavy clashes despite the Minsk ceasefire.
The village has sustained heavy damage, particularly the 700-meter (0.4 mile) “no man’s land” that separates both sides, according to an Agence France-Presse journalist.