Ukraine crisis: Fighting subsides as ceasefire takes hold

A ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine appeared to be holding on Friday evening, despite some initial shelling in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

European Union slaps new economic sanctions on Russia

A pro-Russian separatist stands guard near an orthodox church in the eastern Ukrainian town of Ilovaysk. Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels agreed a ceasefire on Friday, the first step towards ending fighting in eastern Ukraine that has caused the worst standoff between Moscow and the West since the Cold War ended. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

A ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine appeared to be holding on Friday evening, despite some initial shelling in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

However, many residents and combatants were skeptical that the ceasefire could last long or turn into a basis for a durable peace settlement after six months of conflict. The two sides remain far apart on the future of the region.

The ceasefire was approved by envoys from Ukraine, the separatist leadership, Russia and Europe's OSCE security watchdog meeting in Minsk as part of a peace road map that also includes an exchange of prisoners and the creation of a humanitarian corridor for refugees and aid.

Minutes after the ceasefire began, three blasts were heard north of Donetsk, followed by scattered mortar and artillery fire, but this later fell quiet.

Fighting focused on key port, Donetsk

Fighting had raged for much of the day in two flashpoints in eastern Ukraine - near the strategic port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and further north in Donetsk, mostly around the city's airport which remains in government hands.

Ukrainian forces pounded pro-Russian rebels to the east of the port of Mariupol on Friday, hours before envoys from Ukraine and Russia announced a ceasefire as the starting point for a wider peace plan. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)
​Kyiv says its forces have been trying to repel a big offensive by the rebels to take Mariupol, whose port is crucial to Ukraine's steel exports. It stands about halfway between Russia and the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

Ukrainian commanders denied separatist claims that separatist forces had entered Mariupol on Friday.

Mariupol became a major focus of concern for Ukraine after the rebels broke out of their main strongholds further north in late August - backed, Kyiv says, by Russian regular forces.

Russia denies sending troops and weapons into Ukraine, despite what NATO says is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

A Ukrainian military spokesman told a daily news briefing in Kyiv that about 2,000 Russian servicemen had been killed so far in the Ukraine conflict. There was no way of confirming the figure independently. The United Nations recently put the total death toll in the conflict to date at more than 2,600.

New sanctions

The European Union slapped new economic sanctions on Russia on Friday, but said they could be suspended if Moscow withdraws its troops from Ukraine and observes the ceasefire.

U.S. President Barack Obama said he is hopeful but skeptical of separatist rebels following through on their ceasefire commitment with Ukraine. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)
Some provisions will make it harder for Russian state-owned firms to raise finance in the EU. Diplomats expect them to hit, among others, the oil company Rosneft and units of Gazprom, though not the gas firm itself, a main supplier to the EU.

A further 24 people were added to a list of those barred from entry to the bloc and whose assets in the EU are frozen.

The ambassadors agreed on a package of sanctions against persons and sectors of the Russian economy," one senior EU diplomat involved in the talks told Reuters.

"The implementation is expected on Monday," the diplomat said. "A ceasefire must hold for sanctions to be lifted."

Earlier, diplomats spoke of possibly postponing the sanctions coming into force for up to a week to give President Vladimir Putin time to show he was resolving the conflict. But impatience with Russia's ambiguity in the Ukraine conflict won.

'I am not optimistic'

People in the worst affected areas of eastern Ukraine were glad of the respite from almost daily shelling and shooting after the ceasefire began, but few expected it to last.

"We went out for a walk after three days of hiding and this is a huge relief," said Lesya, 30, carrying her newborn boy in Mariupol. "But I am not optimistic. We have already seen so many broken ceasefires."

A Ukrainian serviceman patrols the area near Debaltseve. Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko said he had ordered the army to observe a ceasefire in its conflict with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)
Some expressed doubts about the value of a truce.

"As a military man I must obey orders, but as a person with his civic position I do not accept such a peace," said Andriy Beletsky, commander of the Azov volunteer militia fighting alongside regular troops near Mariupol.

Others said the ceasefire, if it held, would allow the separatists to consolidate their gains, creating conditions similar to the "frozen conflicts" in other parts of the former Soviet Union which have helped Russia maintain its influence.

In Donetsk, where residents mostly tend to blame the Ukrainian side for the conflict, the mood was also gloomy.

"We are not even getting any humanitarian aid here, my house was completely destroyed and now I am living in someone else's cellar," said an elderly resident who declined to give her name.

She was one of a number of residents in the northern Donetsk district of Spartak who have spent most of the past few months living in dark cramped cellars for safety.

Spartak has no running water, gas or electricity. Residents have built improvised toilets and kitchens in their back yards.

"I pray for peace but it's hard to believe this will hold after three months of constant shelling," the woman added.

A mosque, shops and schools were among buildings damaged by Friday's shelling in Donetsk.

In Ukraine's capital Kyiv, hundreds of kilometres from the conflict zone, skepticism also ran strong about the truce.

"I don't believe in it. It's another chance for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his accomplices to regroup and start a new offensive against Ukraine," said Mykola Shabanov, a bank employee.

"I believe no agreement should have been signed. There is no point in it ... Putin wants to destabilize Ukraine completely."


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