Two killed as Ukraine truce gets off to fragile start
DONETSK - Agence France-Presse
Pro-Russian separatists drive military vehicles along a street in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on February 15, 2015. AFP Photo.Two civilians were killed by rebel rocket fire shortly after the start of a ceasefire in east Ukraine on Feb 15., a pro-Kyiv official said, but fighting reportedly died down across most of the conflict zone.
An elderly man and woman died after Grad missile fire hit the town of Popasna in the Lugansk region some 20 minutes after a truce came into force at midnight local time (2200 GMT Saturday), local governor Gennadiy Moskal said.
The firing allegedly came from an area which Kyiv says is under the command of a renegade group of Cossack fighters who insist they will not obey rebel leaders' commands to stop firing.
The ceasefire is the first step in a last-ditch peace plan agreed Thursday by Kyiv and pro-Russian rebels after marathon talks between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France.
Elsewhere across the region, Ukraine's military said its forces had come under fire 10 times but that shooting had tailed off since 3:00 am (0100 GMT).
The situation remained most fraught around the key government-held town of Debaltseve, where pro-Russian rebels battled fiercely to surround Ukranian forces in the hours leading up to the truce.
Deputy regional police chief Ilya Kiva told AFP that firing in Debaltseve and the nearby village of Chornuhine had dropped off but not stopped entirely.
"If before they were shooting at us with Grads every 37 seconds then now they're firing mortars but with big intervals between," Kiva said.
"We hope that it will just take a bit of time before we get a full ceasefire. It is not an immediate process."
Ukraine's military said rebels were still trying to occupy Chornuhine, some four kilometres from Debaltseve, and were also moving heavy weaponry towards a village close to the key Kyiv-held port city of Mariupol.
The latest peace deal is seen as the best hope to stop fighting that has killed over 5,480 people since April but scepticism is high after previous truces collapsed.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned in a televised address that the peace process was already "threatened" by the separatists' encirclement of Debaltseve.
Poroshenko has said that he will introduce martial law across the whole territory of Ukraine if the ceasefire breaks down.
Rebels have cautioned that any attempts by Ukraine to move the thousands of troops they claim to have trapped in the city in or out along the one -- almost impassable -- road that Kyiv still tenuously holds will be seen as aggression and draw a response.
Securing Debaltseve, an important railway hub linking the two rebel centres of Donetsk and Lugansk, is seen as vital for the rebels if they want to make their separatist enclaves sustainable.
Poroshenko is to speak by telephone later Sunday with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the two leaders who helped broker the ceasefire, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.
International pressure is high on both sides to stick to the European-brokered truce that is seen as vital to stopping the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War from escalating.
US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to underline "the importance of full implementation" of the ceasefire.
Washington and Kyiv accused Moscow of fuelling the last-gasp fighting Saturday by pouring arms across the border to help rebels grab territory. Moscow denied the claims.
The surge in fighting Saturday had cast doubt on the ceasefire but Putin was said to have re-affirmed his commitment to the deal in a call with Merkel and Hollande.
US President Barack Obama has warned that he could start supplying arms to Ukraine if the new peace deal collapses, a possibility Europe is desperate to avoid.
The UN Security Council is expected to meet on Sunday for an emergency session to shore up the Ukraine peace deal, diplomats said.
In the rebel bastion of Donetsk the sound of constant bombardments died down and residents welcomed the halt in the fighting.
"We waited for the truce to start at midnight like you do when the clock ticks down to New Year," said Irina, 50.
"But the people here have been so affected by the daily bombardments that they find it hard to believe that the situation can improve."
Underlining the fragility of the situation, rebel authorities and government officials said at least four civilians had been killed in the run-up to the ceasefire.
The new Minsk agreement is fraught with potential pitfalls.
Both sides have to begin withdrawing heavy weapons from the front line within two days of the start of the ceasefire to establish a buffer zone between 50 and 140 kilometres (31 and 87 miles) wide, depending on the range of the weapons.
Under the Minsk agreement, Kyiv will also begin retaking control over the approximately 400-kilometre stretch of Russia's border with rebel-held Ukraine, but only after local elections are held.
The border is entirely under Russian and rebel control and is used, according to Kyiv, as a conduit for separatist supplies.
Separatist-held territories will be granted a degree of autonomy to be established through talks.