MARIUPOL, Ukraine: Fighting around two flashpoint cities in eastern Ukraine on Sunday rattled a tenuous truce between government troops and pro-Russian rebels less than 48 hours after it came into force.
Insurgent militias bombarded a government-held checkpoint on the eastern edge of the port city of Mariupol overnight, local officials said, killing one woman and triggering panic among residents.
Artillery fire was also heard near the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk, AFP correspondents said, with the Ukrainian government accusing separatist gunmen of trying to attack the city’s airport.
The 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 was “generally being observed”.
EU leaders plan to put further pressure on Russia over its alleged support for the insurgents by approving fresh sanctions Monday on its defence and oil companies.
But the bloc’s President Herman Van Rompuy on Sunday said these steps could be reviewed “if the ceasefire is durable, and/or if the peace talks start”.
“The most important thing was to achieve a ceasefire,” he said.
“There have been a few incidents. We have to wait a bit to see if these incidents will continue or if they are exceptions.”
The 12-point pact signed in Minsk on Friday was the first to win the backing of both Kiev and Moscow after five months of warfare that set off the deepest crisis in East-West relations for a generation.
But it delays difficult decisions about the status of the two rebel-run regions of Donetsk and Lugansk until later negotiations, which one separatist leader said may begin in about a week.
The peace plan was drawn up after the rebels — reportedly backed by Russian troops and firepower — launched a lightning counter-offensive in late August that dramatically reversed recent gains by the Ukrainian army and set alarm bells ringing over Moscow’s territorial ambitions.
Mariupol residents have for days been fearful of an insurgent assault in what analysts see as a possible land grab to carve out a corridor between Russia and the Crimean peninsula annexed by Moscow in March.
The situation was calm in the Sea of Azov port city Sunday but several buildings and vehicles were damaged.
“I want peace but I think this ceasefire is finished, this is the third night we haven’t been able to sleep,” one 46-year-old woman who gave her name only as Victoria told Agence France-Presse.
Both sides had accused the other of violating the truce within hours of its signing, raising fears it could go the way of a unilateral ceasefire called by Kiev in June that collapsed within days.
The separatists opposed to Kiev’s rule insist they will not give up their demands for an independent state in the eastern region that accounts for one-sixth of Ukraine’s population and a quarter of its exports.
The peace deal affords the Donetsk and Lugansk regions “temporary special status” within Ukraine, allowing them to introduce local self-government in certain areas and conduct early local elections.
Although the rebels’ demands have varied, ranging from plans to join Russia to accepting only limited autonomy, a top separatist leader from Donetsk said the talks must grant the east a special status that permanently limits Kiev’s control over the important industrial base.
The Minsk accord calls on both sides to pull back from major flashpoints and provides for the creation of a border security zone.
It also stipulates an exchange of prisoners — which began on small scale Sunday — and the supply of humanitarian aid to the devastated eastern cities.
Western leaders accuse Russia of actively fomenting the rebellion by funnelling huge numbers of troops and weapons into Ukraine and massing a force of around 20,000 men on the border — claims which Moscow dismisses as propaganda.
Putin came under personal attack at the weekend from the Dalai Lama, who accused him of being “self-centred” and seeking to rebuild the Berlin Wall, while the head of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church said he was “possessed by Satan”.
Although Poroshenko said he was “satisfied” with the truce, it has opened him up to accusations that he has surrendered to recent rebel advances and failed to reunify the nation of 45 million under a pro-Western banner, as he promised at the time of his election in May.
The warring has killed almost 2,800 people, according to an AFP tally based on UN and government figures, and sent at least half a million fleeing their homes.
An Amnesty report published Sunday accused both sides of war crimes, including indiscriminate shelling, abductions, torture, and killings.
Human Rights Watch also said pro-Moscow rebels had committed “serious violations of the laws of war” by forcing civilians to work in “punishment brigades” on pain of death. AFP