Ukraine conflict at 'crossroads' as troop deaths shake truce
International monitors said the conflict in Ukraine was at a "crossroads" as further losses among government forces rattled a two-week-old truce just as it seemed to be gaining traction.
The deaths of three Ukrainian soldiers after a two-day lull in clashes with pro-Russian separatists highlighted the fragility of the ceasefire as the UN said some five million people needed humanitarian aid due to the conflict.
The envoy to Ukraine for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is monitoring the peace deal, told the UN Security Council that while there were encouraging signs, the country still risked all-out war.
"We seem to be at the crossroads, where we are facing the risk of a further escalation of the conflict or where common sense, responsibility, and humanity shall prevail and we may be able to walk on the road to peace," envoy Heidi Tagliavini told the 15-member council.
The Security Council's meeting on the conflict came a year to the day after Russian and pro-Moscow forces began occupying strategic sites on the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
Russia formally annexed the territory in March 2014, triggering an international furore. The uprising in Ukraine's east began the following month.
- 'Humanitarian crisis' -
The UN said Friday there was a crisis in rebel-held areas, where people were living in "extraordinarily difficult circumstances".
"We really do have a humanitarian crisis in the separatist-held areas," UN aid coordinator in Ukraine Neal Walker said in Brussels.
"We've been really hoping that the ceasefire will hold over time and that that will enable us to respond more rapidly to those critical humanitarian needs," said Walker, as the UN this week launched an appeal for $316 million in humanitarian aid.
The UN estimates 4.7 million people in or near the combat zones need help while another 300,000 people have fled to other parts of the country and a million overseas to escape the conflict which has claimed at least 5,800 lives.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Friday that three soldiers were killed and seven wounded in the past 24 hours.
President Petro Poroshenko said the killing of troops "who were withdrawing constitutes a serious breach of the ceasefire", during a telephone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, her office said.
No fatalities had been reported over the previous two days, raising hopes that the February 12 ceasefire brokered by Germany and France might hold.
Kiev said that, while fighting had halted along most of the frontline, there were still clashes in villages around the ruins of Donetsk airport, one of the most fought-over prizes in the conflict, which fell to the rebels last month.
Both sides, however, said they were continuing to withdraw heavy weapons from along the frontline, a key part of the plan to end 10 months of bloodshed.
Kiev said Thursday that it had started withdrawing 100-mm cannon, while the rebels claim they had nearly completed their pull-back.
Monitors from the OSCE on the ground, however, told AFP that while they had seen weapon movements on both sides it was too early to confirm that a full withdrawal was taking place.
An AFP photographer on Friday saw monitors inspecting around two dozen Ukrainian artillery pieces, which were then towed in the direction leading away from the frontline.
- 'Threat from the east' -
Poroshenko cautioned Friday that the withdrawal was "just a first, test step".
"At any moment our soldiers are ready to return our weapons to their previous positions and rebuff the enemy," he told a group of soldiers.
Even if the peace held, Russia would continue to threaten Ukraine, he said.
"Even if there is a lengthy truce that leads to a political solution and long-term peace, the military threat from the east will unfortunately remain."
Russia's annexation of Crimea sparked the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.
The West is hoping the UN-backed truce deal negotiated by Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France in Minsk earlier this month can prevent a further escalation.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has welcomed the downturn in violence but demanded Moscow withdraw the weapons it is accused of sending across the border in support of the rebels.
"They have to withdraw this equipment and they have to stop supporting separatists," he said.
The United States and European Union have warned Russia -- which has been hit by successive rounds of sanctions over Ukraine -- could face fresh economic punishment if the peace process unravels.
Moscow has itself ratcheted up the pressure by warning it could cut off gas supplies to Ukraine -- and, by extension, to parts of the EU.
Moscow last year cut off gas deliveries to Ukraine before turning the taps back on in December after making cash-strapped Kiev pay in advance for its supplies.
© 2015 AFP