KIEV, Ukraine (AP) – A ceasefire was declared in eastern Ukraine a minute after midnight Sunday, kindling slender hopes of a reprieve from a conflict that has claimed more than 5,300 lives.
But within two hours of the ceasefire’s scheduled start, the warring sides were already trading accusations of fresh attacks.
International attention will be focused in the coming days on the strategic railway hub of Debaltseve, where Ukrainian government forces have for weeks been fending off severe onslaughts from pro-Russian separatists.
An Associated Press journalist travelling toward Debaltseve from the north on Sunday morning heard explosions from about 25 kilometres away. A Ukrainian officer, whose unit’s tanks were parked by the side of the road, said it was the sound of rebels firing. This could not be confirmed independently.
Donetsk, the main large city under separatist control, was quiet on Sunday morning with no shelling from government forces, the Donetsk News Agency, a separatist mouthpiece, reported, citing the city administration.
The US State Department said images from eastern Ukraine offer “credible pieces of evidence” that the Russian military has deployed larger amounts of artillery and multiple rocket launchers around Debaltseve to shell Ukrainian forces.
“We are confident that these are Russian military, not separatist systems,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement Saturday.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko issued a ceasefire order in a live broadcast for all the country’s armed forces to hold their fire from one minute after midnight Kiev time (2201 GMT, 5.01pm EST).
Accusations of violations were quick to follow.
Ukrainian security services chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko said one infringement was reported about 50 minutes after the deadline. Artillery salvoes were fired from an area that Nalyvaichenko said is under the control of a Cossack unit manned by Russian citizens.
Meanwhile, rebels accused the Ukrainians of deploying artillery shortly after midnight.
Donetsk News Agency, a separatist mouthpiece, cited senior rebel defence official Eduard Basurin as saying the Ukrainian forces garrisoned in Debaltseve fired artillery and mortars at rebel positions.
“In the interests of preventing the death of the civilian population, precise fire is being deployed toward the enemy’s positions,” Basurin was cited as saying.
The hours before the ceasefire were marked by ferocious battles around Debaltseve, as Ukrainian armed forces undertook desperate attempts to gain control over a highway linking the town to their rearguard.