ANDRIYIVKA: Ukraine’s unilateral ceasefire hung in the balance on Sunday after clashes engulfed the separatist east and Russian President Vladimir Putin put troops on “full combat alert.”
The resurgence of violence in the 11-week pro-Russian uprising threatening to splinter the ex-Soviet state came as Washington accused the Kremlin of covertly arming the rebels and sternly warned Putin against sending troops into Ukraine.
But the Russian strongman appeared ready to continue saber-rattling in the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War by ordering units from the Volga to western Siberia to conduct snap military drills.
“There is no ceasefire,” a woman named Lila Ivanovna said on Saturday just four kilometers [two miles]southwest of the battled-scarred rebel stronghold city of Slavyansk.
“They were shooting last night and I heard mortar and machinegun fire at four this morning. Nothing has changed,” she added.
Ukrainian border guards said the militia used sniper fire and grenade launchers to strike a base in the eastern Donetsk region, four hours after President Petro Poroshenko declared a unilateral halt to hostilities that have claimed more than 375 lives.
They said troops had to return fire when the same rebel unit mounted a second attack near a different Russian border crossing a few minutes later.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s “anti-terrorist operation” confirmed the battles around Slavyansk, while the defense ministry said one of its anti-aircraft bases was assaulted by “50 men in camouflage.”
Ukraine’s SBU security service said nine border guards were wounded in violence overnight.
But the separatist leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic told reporters that Slavyansk had absorbed a heavy air and artillery assault from Ukrainian troops.
Poroshenko ordered his forces to hold fire for a week on Friday evening as part of a broader peace plan that would eventually give more rights to eastern industrial regions where pro-Russian sentiments run high.
But Poroshenko’s peace initiative includes a major caveat that allows the military to retaliate with equal force against any attack.
“We know how to protect our nation,” he told wounded soldiers during a visit to a Kiev military hospital.
The 48-year-old has followed through on his May 25 election promise to ignore Kremlin pressure and bring Ukraine into the Western fold by signing an historic European Union trade agreement in Brussels on Friday.
Putin issued a carefully-worded statement on Saturday saying he “supports Poroshenko’s decision to halt fire in the southeast of Ukraine.”
But the Kremlin chief stressed that any peace initiative “not aimed at starting the negotiating process will not be viable or realistic.”
Putin also called on “the conflicting parties to halt all military activities and sit down at the negotiating table”—a comment that implied a degree of criticism for the rebels’ continued attacks.