MARIUPOL: Gunfire and heavy shelling rocked a key frontline city in eastern Ukraine overnight, raising fears on Sunday that a tenuous truce between government and rebel forces had already collapsed.
Numerous explosions rattled the night sky and thick smoke was visible on the horizon of Mariupol, a strategic government-held port city on the Azov Sea in the southeast of the country.
Residents spoke of their panic as the fighting erupted, with gunfire and shelling that damaged buildings and vehicles.
“Everyone is starting to flee,” one 46-year-old Mariupol resident who gave her name only as Victoria told Agence France-Presse.
“I’m frightened. I want peace but I think this ceasefire is finished, this is the third night we haven’t been able to sleep,” she added.
The renewed violence erupted just hours after a phone call between Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who agreed that the ceasefire signed on Friday was “generally being observed.”
The 12-point pact was the first to gain the backing of both Kiev and Moscow after five months of fighting that has claimed around 2,800 lives and triggered the deepest crisis in East-West relations for a generation.
It was drawn up after the rebels — reportedly backed by Russian troops and firepower — launched a lightning counter-offensive across the southeast in late August that dramatically reversed recent gains by the Ukrainian army.
Mariupol became the latest flashpoint when the insurgents pushed southwards in what is seen as a drive to carve out a land corridor between the Russian border and the strategic Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia in March.
The fresh violence threatened a repeat of the unilateral ceasefire called by Kiev in June, which collapsed within days.
Both sides were already accusing each other on Saturday of breaching the truce within hours of its signing in the Belarussian capital Minsk.
And pro-Russian separatists opposed to Kiev’s rule still insist they will not give up their ambitions for an independent state in the industrial east.
“We want our own president, our own currency and our own banking system,” a pro-Russian guerrilla named Oleg told AFP in the Donetsk region town of Yasynuvata.
“This is the only way. There is no other alternative,” he added.
Western leaders accuse Russia of actively fomenting the rebellion by funneling large numbers of troops and heavy weaponry across the border — claims which Moscow has repeatedly denied.