Ukraine refuses to pull back heavy artillery as battles continue to rage
Ukraine will not withdraw heavy artillery from the front line as required under a peace agreement because of continued fighting, officials said yesterday.
The decision to keep artillery in the area puts further pressure on a tentative peace agreement signed in Minsk on February 12.
"Given that the positions of Ukrainian servicemen continue to be shelled, there cannot yet be any talk of pulling back weapons," said Vladislav Seleznyov, a Ukrainian military spokesman, at a televised briefing.
Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 10 wounded over a 24-hour period on Sunday and yesterday, the Ukrainian military said, as fighting continued in the east of the country despite a nominal ceasefire that came into force over a week ago.
Violence has tailed off in eastern Ukraine since Russian-backed separatists completed an assault to seize the strategic rail hub of Debaltseve last Wednesday, but fighting continues in key flash points including the village of Shirokino near Mariupol and on the outskirts of Donetsk.
Separatist spokesmen said that they would withdraw their artillery in line with the agreement, raising hopes that Russian-backed forces are prepared to honour the ceasefire more fully after completing their victory.
Germany, which along with France brokered the Minsk peace agreement, voiced concern about the failure to end the fighting, calling on Moscow to "urgently bring to bear its influence on the separatists" to honour the truce.
"It fills us with concern that there is still no comprehensive truce," said Steffen Seibert, the German government spokesman
Ukraine's national currency, the hryvnia, slid 10pc yesterday to a record low of 30.1pc against the dollar on the back of fears that the peace plan signed in Minsk may collapse.
The slide prompted Ukraine's central bank to announce tighter currency controls on importers and a ban on banks lending hryvnia to companies for the purpose of purchasing foreign currency.
The hryvnia has lost 67pc of its value against the dollar in the past 12 months, making it the world's worst-performing currency and slashing ordinary Ukrainians' purchasing power.
UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond criticised Russia for failing to enforce the terms of a tattered truce in eastern Ukraine in the face of ongoing attacks by pro-Russian separatists. "I have to say from the experience of the last 10 to 12 days, the Russian engagement in the Minsk process is rather cynical," the Foreign Secretary said in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, yesterday.
"It's like an agreement on paper that has been immediately broken on the ground."
Britain has a "high degree of scepticism about a Russian commitment to achieving genuine peace in Ukraine on anything but terms unilaterally dictated from the Kremlin," Mr Hammond added.
Rebel spokesman Eduard Basurin said the pullback from both sides was to take place between yesterday and March 7.
Both sides have agreed to pull back their big guns and rockets from 15 to 43 miles away from the conflict line - depending on the weapon size - creating a buffer zone of 31-87 miles.
The buffer zone was a main element of a peace agreement worked out by leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France on February 12. Among the attacks reported by the Ukrainian military since was an attempt to storm positions in the village of Shyrokyne, near the port city of Mariupol.
Any rebel seizure of Mariupol could help establish a land corridor between mainland Russia and the Crimean peninsula.
Journalists in Bezimenne, the final rebel-held village along the shore before Shyrokyne, heard sporadic outgoing blasts.
Tensions also remain high around Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub captured by separatists after intense battles last week. Rebel forces in Lohvynove, a village just north of Debaltseve, said that they continue to be targeted by Ukrainian artillery.
"At the moment, it's quiet. But in a couple of hours, they will start to fire at our positions," said one rebel fighter. (© Daily Telegraph, London)