Wednesday 24 January 2018

Fragile Ukraine peace shattered in heavy fighting around key town

Members of the Ukrainian armed forces outside Debaltseve yesterday. Photo: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Members of the Ukrainian armed forces outside Debaltseve yesterday. Photo: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Roland Oliphant

Shelling resumed around the contested Ukrainian town of Debaltseve yesterday, shattering a delicate truce and jeopardising hopes of a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Guns fell silent across swathes of the front line at midnight on Saturday after Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatist leaders issued public ceasefire orders.

Both sides reported an appreciable decline in intensity of fighting. Francois Hollande, the French president, who brokered the ceasefire deal in Minsk last week, said it was "generally satisfactory" despite some "local incidents".

But fighting continued near the port-city of Mariupol in Donetsk region and there were reports that two civilians were killed by rockets in the town of Popasna in Luhansk region.

In Debaltseve, the town encircled by separatists and described by the Ukraine army as "the main hot spot", rebels warned that the truce "does not apply".

A resumption of fighting at key flashpoints yesterday made it clear that diplomatic efforts had managed to slow, but not stop, the war in the east.

Several thousand Ukrainian troops are believed to be holding out in the town, a key road and rail junction on the main road between Dontesk and Luhansk, the separatists' two biggest strongholds.

Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, said his forces would continue their offensive in Debaltseve. "We will cease fire with the exclusion of internal areas, that is to say Debaltseve," he said. "There is not a single word about Debaltseve in the Minsk agreement. Kiev has betrayed thousands of soldiers there."

Ominously, he went on to warn that any Ukrainian attempt to break out of or relieve the pocket would be considered a violation of the agreement - laying the ground for a general unravelling of the peace deal.

Anatoliy Stelmakh, a Ukraine military spokesman, said the pro-Russian insurgents used "every kind of weapon, including Grad rockets" in Debaltseve.

"The rebels tried to storm our positions three times," he said, stressing that the Ukrainian forces were "only responding to attacks".

Russian-backed forces launched an offensive to surround and capture the town last month.

The fate of the garrison there is believed to have been one of the most acrimonious issues at marathon peace talks between Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and Petro Poroshenko, his Ukrainian counterpart, in Minsk. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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