One dead as renewed fighting rattles Ukraine truce

7th September 2014, Comments 0 comments

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".

Mariupol city hall said one woman had died in the shelling, the first reported death since the ceasefire.

The 12-point pact signed in Minsk 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.

"The Ukrainian army has met the truce conditions fully, and has ceased fire. At the same time, our checkpoints came under attack from the terrorist side," said National Security and Defence Council official Volodymyr Poloviy.

- 'Unable to sleep' -

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 Azov Sea 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 AFP.

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 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.

On the political front, the deal outlines the decentralisation of power with Donetsk and Lugansk to be granted "temporary special status" ahead of local elections.

Rebel leaders said the so-called contact group that signed the pact would meet again in a week or so.

- 'Possessed by Satan' -

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.

The US and the EU have already agreed to beef up sanctions against Russia, while NATO approved a rapid reaction force aimed at reassuring jittery eastern European states.

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".

Russia, its economy already on the brink of recession, warned it would respond if the EU imposes more sanctions, accusing Brussels of supporting the "party of war" in Kiev.

Although Poroshenko said he was "satisfied" with the truce pact, 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.


© 2014 AFP

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