Monday 22 December 2014

Battles as Ukraine ceasefire ends

Published 01/07/2014 | 06:07

Pro-Russian fighters guard their positions during fighting near a regional police department in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine (AP)
Pro-Russian fighters guard their positions during fighting near a regional police department in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine (AP)
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, left, visits troops ahead of abandoning a ceasefire in the conflict with pro-Russian separatists (AP)
A woman cries near her burning house after shelling in the city of Slovyansk, in the Donetsk region yesterday (AP)

Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia separatists have been fighting with heavy weapons and rebels have captured the Interior Ministry headquarters in a major city a day after a ceasefire ended.

The often-broken ceasefire had given European leaders 10 days to search for a peace deal and its end raised the prospect of an escalation in a conflict that has already killed more than 400 people.

Ukrainian forces have been unable to suppress the rebels in two months of fighting and it is not clear what they will do differently now.

President Petro Poroshenko had called a unilateral ceasefire to try to persuade the rebels to lay down their weapons and hold peace talks. Some of them later signed up to the ceasefire as talks began but each side accused the other of repeated violations.

The president announced the end of the ceasefire last night and today the military made artillery and air strikes against separatist positions, Defence Ministry spokesman Oleksiy Dmytrashkovsky told the Interfax news agency.

He said one service member had been killed and 17 wounded in the previous 24 hours, and an Su-25 attack aircraft was damaged.

Near the village of Karlovka, 30 kilometres (20 miles) north-west of the eastern regional capital Donetsk, residents said government forces and rebels began firing heavy weapons at each other from positions on either side of a bridge, just hours after the ceasefire expired.

"There was shooting near the water. Even the water was splattering out," said Inna Vladimirovna. "We know when they are just shooting to scare and when they are shooting to kill."

In Donetsk, rebels attacked a police building and fighting raged in the city centre. The streets were deserted and rifle fire could be heard. After hours of gun battles the rebels took over the Interior Ministry compound and the body of a plainclothes police officer lay outside.

"I was driving and some people appeared with automatic weapons," said a man named only as Vitaly. "They put me and my girlfriend on the ground and then they said: 'Run away from here!'

"I don't know who is fighting whom. We are standing here. We are afraid and shaking."

European leaders have been pressing Russian president Vladimir Putin to persuade the rebels to lay down their weapons. The West says Russia is sending weapons to the rebels and allowing Russian citizens to cross the border to fight. It claims Mr Putin has broad leverage over them.

Russia rejects those claims and says it has only limited influence on the rebels, urging the Ukrainian government to negotiate directly with them.

Mr Poroshenko held four-way phone talks with Mr Putin, German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande on Sunday and yesterday, but said those did not produce enough progress to merit extending the ceasefire.

European leaders have threatened a new round of economic sanctions against Russia if it and the rebels do not meet conditions set by Mr Poroshenko.

But ambassadors from the European Union's 28 governments decided today in Brussels that they were not ready to impose new sanctions, instead agreeing to prepare a proposal to be decided at their next meeting on Monday, according to an EU official.

That proposal would target those responsible for fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, according to a diplomat from a major EU country, and could include travel bans and asset freezes for both individuals and companies. The EU has so far sanctioned only individuals.

Press Association

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