Thursday 21 September 2017

Fighting flares as fears for future of ceasefire grow

Ukrainian forces and rebels clash at rail hub in run-up to armistice

Alec Luhn

Fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebel militias in the east of the country intensified yesterday as fears grew for the durability of a ceasefire agreement that was due to take effect at midnight.

The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine had backed the truce as part of a peace plan agreed in Minsk on Thursday, but fighting escalated in the hours before it came into effect. According to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and Russia-backed rebels had bargained for a "preparatory delay" rather than an immediate ceasefire.

The opposing sides were apparently spending the extra time solidifying positions on two main fronts, along the Azov Sea coast near Mariupol, and around the city of Debaltseve to the north, which fighters have compared with the World War II battle of Stalingrad.

Both cities are under Ukrainian control, but hold strategic value for the Donetsk and Luhansk breakaway republics.

Even before the peace plan was agreed, 50 Russian tanks, 40 missile systems and 40 armoured vehicles had crossed into Ukraine, Kiev claimed. The Ukrainians were moving up reinforcements yesterday as well, in the hope that a ceasefire would allow them to reach Debaltseve, a national guard commander said.

Political statements in the runup to the ceasefire suggested neither Kiev nor Moscow fully expected fighting to cease. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia could not affect developments on the ground, reiterating the Kremlin's claim that it was not a party to the conflict despite overwhelming evidence that Russian armour and troops have been in Ukraine.

Map of Ukraine conflict
Map of Ukraine conflict

Kiev seemed to be bracing itself for continued clashes. Poroshenko warned yesterday that, if the ceasefire did not work, he would declare a state of martial law across the country. Kiev has previously refrained from doing so for fear that it would not only cause discontent among the population but also give Moscow an excuse to escalate tensions.

The Ukrainian leader also said he would speak to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and US President Barack Obama by phone to "co-ordinate our actions" regarding the ceasefire.

Many fighters and civilians in eastern Ukraine do not believe the truce can last, since they have already seen ceasefires declared in June and September fail as the opposing sides continued fighting, both claiming to be responding to attacks.

The Ukrainian military said 11 soldiers had been killed and 40 wounded on Friday and seven killed and 23 wounded yesterday.

For weeks, rebels have been attempting to cut off Debaltseve, which holds a key railway junction, and seize it from the reported 8,000 Ukrainian troops defending the city. Speaking after the Minsk agreements, Putin suggested it was fully surrounded and Ukrainian forces should agree to abandon it, but Kiev has insisted that it is not cut off and will remain government territory.

Although rebels have been able to virtually surround Debaltseve and pound it with rockets and artillery, the road connecting the city with Ukrainian forces in Artemivsk is not fully under either side's control. Pro-Russia forces shelled the city 15 times and attempted to storm it early yesterday, Kiev said.

"Fighters are destroying the city of Debaltseve," regional police head Vyacheslav Abroskin wrote on his Facebook page. "There is incessant shelling of civilian homes and buildings. The city is burning. A Grad [rocket] scored a direct hit on the police station."

On the road to Debaltseve, a national guard squad commander with the call-sign Orest said his unit had arrived from the northern city of Kharkiv to reinforce troops pinned down in the besieged city, where the fighting "makes Stalingrad look tame," he said.

Members of the national guard medical unit in Artemivsk said they were preparing ambulances to go to Debaltseve if the ceasefire allowed them to get through. They had 30 cots laid out in a former clinic ready to take in wounded soldiers. Drivers were last able to take ambulances through on Thursday. The unit had lost four of 11 ambulances, and at least one medic had been killed and one captured in recent days, said Igor Ilkiv, commander of the main national guard medical squad in Artemivsk.

"We're seeing more casualties," said an ambulance driver with the call-sign Biker. "The mortar and rocket attacks are getting worse. It seems like the ceasefire will only be the start of more problems."

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