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Guns fall silent over Ukraine as 'long' truce is agreed

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An injured Ukrainian soldier lies on a bed at a hospital in the southern coastal town of Mariupol. A ceasefire struck between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine was largely holding on Saturday, though residents and combatants said it was likely to prove a brief interlude before renewed fighting (REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

An injured Ukrainian soldier lies on a bed at a hospital in the southern coastal town of Mariupol. A ceasefire struck between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine was largely holding on Saturday, though residents and combatants said it was likely to prove a brief interlude before renewed fighting (REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

REUTERS

Ukrainian self-propelled artillery guns are seen near Slaviansk September 3, 2014. 
Tough economic sanctions remained in force last night as US president Barack Obama and other NATO leaders reacted with scepticism to a peace deal agreed to halt fighting in Ukraine (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

Ukrainian self-propelled artillery guns are seen near Slaviansk September 3, 2014. Tough economic sanctions remained in force last night as US president Barack Obama and other NATO leaders reacted with scepticism to a peace deal agreed to halt fighting in Ukraine (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

REUTERS

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An injured Ukrainian soldier lies on a bed at a hospital in the southern coastal town of Mariupol. A ceasefire struck between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine was largely holding on Saturday, though residents and combatants said it was likely to prove a brief interlude before renewed fighting (REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

The sun was already low when the truce began and the tanks guarding the eastern approaches of Mariupol gunned their engines before roaring off west away from the front line into the city.

Behind them they left a cloud of dust, a badly scarred road, and an eerie quiet as the guns and rocket launchers that fought a deadly two-day artillery duel finally fell silent.

After nearly six months of fighting, the conflict that has claimed at least 2,600 lives and brought a new Cold War finally appears to be over.

Under a 12-point deal signed in Minsk yesterday afternoon, the Russian-backed separatist leadership and Ukrainian government envoys agreed to a ceasefire beginning at 6pm.

Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, said the ceasefire must also be observed by the separatists and monitored by observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Under the deal, which was negotiated by a contact group including Russian and OSCE delegates, both sides will retain the positions they held when the ceasefire came into effect.

The agreement also provides for a full exchange of prisoners, which Mr Poroshenko said could start as early as today.

Speaking in Newport, south east Wales, where he has been attending a Nato summit, Mr Poroshenko said the ceasefire should last "a long time" and hinted that a settlement could be reached that would keep separatist-controlled regions in Ukraine by addressing the rebels' main grievances.

"Significant steps [have been taken] including decentralisation of power, which guarantee economic freedoms and the rights to use any languages on this territory," he said.

Separatist leaders said they would also abide by a ceasefire but would continue to seek full separation from Ukraine after fighting ends.

The truce follows a separatist offensive that Nato and Ukrainian officials say was spearheaded by regular Russian troops.

Russia denies that its forces are operating inside Ukraine.

It leaves the rebel leadership in control of large areas of Ukraine's most populous and economically important region, including the key cities of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Western diplomats believe Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, deployed as many as 3,000 troops in the battle in order to indefinitely "freeze" the conflict and create a de-facto autonomous region dependent on Russian patronage, even if it technically remains part of Ukraine.

Moscow issued no immediate reaction to the ceasefire. Mr Poroshenko said last Thursday that he and Mr Putin had agreed on a ceasefire, but amended the statement after the Kremlin said it had no right to agree any such thing because it was not party to the conflict.

The war in eastern Ukraine erupted when separatist gunmen seized control of several towns and cities in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in April. The rebels said they were fighting to defend Russian speakers against what they called a "fascist coup" in Kiev following the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych.

In the months that followed, the conflict escalated into a war involving the use of heavy artillery, armour and air power. As well as the 2,600 dead, a million more people have been displaced.

On the southern front on the Azov Sea coast, fighting subsided in the two hours before the ceasefire came into effect.

Earlier, Ukrainian and rebel forces - who government soldiers in the area claim are actually regular Russian troops - had engaged in an intense artillery duel as they struggled over control of the 20-mile wide corridor of no-man's-land separating Mariupol from the separatist-held town of Novoazovsk.

Ukrainian forces appeared to have some success in pushing back pro-Russian fighters from the city limits, with yesterday's fighting concentrated in an area six miles from the last Ukrainian checkpoints defending the city.

Plumes of smoke erupted from the horizon as separatists and Ukrainian artillery struck positions near the villages of Shirokino and Kominternove in the afternoon.

It was unclear whether the truce was being observed in other parts of the conflict zone. A few minutes after the ceasefire was due to come into force, three powerful explosions were heard in northern Donetsk.

With minutes to go before the ceasefire, volunteer militia fighters who had earlier been engaged in battle with what they said were Russian troops shared cigarettes and joked about what they would do after the end of the fighting. But they expressed deep scepticism that the truce would last, and emphasised that the war would not truly be over as long as the pro-Russian separatists held "occupied" Ukrainian land.

"What, you seriously believe in the ceasefire? We've had two already and they never stuck to it," said one fighter.

"I think fighting will continue in future," said Kirt, a deputy platoon commander with the volunteer Azov Battalion. "It's not a simple war between two armies. It's between ideologies."

┬ęTelegraph

Sunday Independent