DONETSK, Ukraine (AFP) – Heavy gunfire erupted around the eastern Ukrainian rebel stronghold of Donetsk on Sunday, just hours after NATO’s top military commander said there was a ceasefire “in name only” on the ground.
The violence flared on the day Ukrainian forces and pro-Kremlin insurgents are required to pull back from the frontline and create a buffer zone under a new peace plan hammered out in the Belarussian capital Minsk on Saturday.
AFP correspondents heard explosions and shelling around Donetsk airport, a key battleground in the five-month separatist uprising against Kiev’s rule.
It was not known if there had been any movement of fighters away from a proposed 30-kilometre (20-mile) demilitarised zone on the frontline that splits the rebel-controlled east from the rest of the former Soviet state.
The nine-point Minsk plan is meant to reinforce a truce forged on September 5 in a bid to stem fighting that has claimed nearly 3,000 lives and threatened Ukraine’s very survival.
Servicemen of the pro-Ukrainian Aydar battalion sit atop an APC in front of the Lugansk thermoelectric power station in the eastern Ukrainian town of Scshastya in the region of Lugansk on September 20 – AFP
NATO’s top commander General Philip Breedlove said Saturday that continued clashes had shown the two-week-old agreement to be a ceasefire “in name only” and accused Russia of keeping soldiers on Ukrainian soil to bolster the insurgents.
The truce was “still there in name, but what is happening on the ground is quite a different story,” he said on the sidelines of a NATO meeting symbolically convened in the ex-Soviet satellite state of Lithuania.
At least 35 Ukrainians soldiers and civilians have been killed since the original truce was declared, although there is no information on rebel casualties.
Breedlove however struck a more optimistic note when he spoke of Saturday’s Minsk agreement.
“It is our sincere hope and desire that… the two combatants can come to agreement to again get to a ceasefire situation,” he said.