Friday 6 December 2019

'Rebels attack' despite ceasefire

General Philip Breedlove addresses the media following the meeting in Vilnius (AP)
General Philip Breedlove addresses the media following the meeting in Vilnius (AP)

Ukrainian security officials say attacks by Russian-backed rebel fighters are continuing despite a ceasefire called by both sides more than two weeks ago.

Colonel Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's national security council, said two Ukrainian servicemen and about 40 rebels had died in clashes over the past day. He said the insurgent fighters fired on Ukrainian positions at 22 locations and that they fired artillery at the airport in Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city.

The city council of Mariupol, a strategically vital city on the coast of the Sea of Azov, said sporadic shelling of points on its outskirts took place during the night and into today. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

It came as Nato's most senior general said the two-week-old truce between Ukraine and pro-Russian militants is a "ceasefire in name only".

US Air Force General Philip Breedlove said that by enabling a free flow of weapons and fighters across the border Russia has made it nearly impossible to determine how many of its troops are operating inside Ukraine.

A ceasefire was called on September 5 but has been violated repeatedly. Negotiators from Ukraine, Russia, the rebels and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe last week tried to further the peace process with an agreement calling for both sides to halt their advances and for pulling back heavy artillery to create a buffer zone.

But Col Lysenko said the ceasefire violations are obstructing fulfilment of the buffer zone plan. "The first point (the ceasefire) is not being fulfilled so far, so we're not talking about the other points."

Along with pulling back the heavy weapons, the plan also calls for the withdrawal of foreign fighters and for all military flights over the combat area to be banned.

More than 3,000 people have died in the conflict that has been raging since mid-April. Ukraine and Western countries claim Russia is providing equipment and support to the rebels and that Russia has sent in troops of its own. Moscow consistently denies this.

Gen Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, said after meeting Nato military chiefs in Vilnius, Lithuania, that he is hopeful about yesterday's agreement for creating a buffer zone between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces.

But he put the main blame on Russia for the continuing conflict.

"The situation in Ukraine is not good right now," he said. "Basically we have a ceasefire in name only."

He said violence in Ukraine, including the number of artillery rounds fired in the past few days, is as high as before the ceasefire.

"Right now the border is being maintained open by Russian forces and Russian-backed forces, and the fluidity of movement of Russian forces and Russian-backed forces back and forth across that border makes it almost impossible to understand the numbers."

He said it is clear the number of Russian troops in Ukraine has declined significantly over the past week or so, with some returning to the Russian side of the border.

But he added: "Except that they haven't returned home and are still available to bring their military force to bear on Ukraine, should it be desired."

Neither Russia nor Ukraine is a member of Nato, but both share borders with Nato members.

PA Media

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