Mariupol (Ukraine) (AFP) – Heavy fighting around flashpoint cities in eastern Ukraine on Sunday threatened the collapse of a tenuous truce between government forces 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 terrified residents.
Artillery fire was also heard near the airport of the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk, AFP correspondents said, although the source of the attacks was not immediately clear.
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”.
“I’m frightened, one 46-year-old Mariupol resident who gave her name only as Victoria told AFP.
“I want peace but I think this ceasefire is finished, this is the third night we haven’t been able to sleep.”
Mariupol city hall said one woman had died in the shelling, the first reported death since the ceasefire, and three residents were wounded.
The 12-point pact signed Friday was the first to gain the backing of both Kiev and Moscow after five months of fighting that set off the deepest crisis in East-West relations for a generation.
It was drawn up after the rebels — reportedly backed by large numbers of 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 battleground when the insurgents pushed southwards in what was seen as a drive to carve out a land corridor between the Russian border and the strategic Crimean peninsula annexed by Moscow in March.
The situation was calm in the Azov Sea city on Sunday but a truck was ablaze on a road near the checkpoint, and several buildings were damaged, according to AFP correspondents.
“You see what type of ceasefire there is on the Russian side,” said a fighter with a pro-Kiev volunteer battalion in Mariupol. “Who knows what’s going to happen today.”
Both sides had already accused the other of violating the truce within hours of its signing in the Belarussian capital Minsk.
A unilateral ceasefire called by Kiev in June also collapsed within a matter of days.
- Political changes -
Pro-Russian separatists opposed to Kiev’s rule are insisting they will not give up their ambitions for an independent state in the industrial east, a 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 security zone on the Russia-Ukraine border.
It also stipulates an exchange of prisoners and the supply of humanitarian aid to the devastated cities of east Ukraine.
On the political front, it outlines the decentralisation of power and creation of “special statuses” for Donetsk and Lugansk, ahead of the early local elections.
“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.”
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 has repeatedly denied.
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.
But despite their strong rhetoric, there appears to be little appetite among Western governments to become directly involved in ensuring the peace in the former Soviet state, with Washington saying it was between Russia and Ukraine.
- ‘Party of war’ -
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 months of fighting have killed almost 2,800 people and sent at least half a million fleeing their homes.
Dozens of towns in the east are in ruins, and once-powerful factories and coal mines that form the backbone of Ukraine’s economy have ground to a halt.
An Amnesty report published Sunday also accused both sides of war crimes, including indiscriminate shelling, abductions, torture, and killings.
Human Rights Watch separately accused pro-Moscow rebels of committing “serious violations of the laws of war”, claiming they were forcing civilians to work in “punishment brigades” on pain of death.
- Politics & Government
- Unrest, Conflicts & War
- eastern Ukraine