Ukraine fighting rages in spite of cease-fire as Russian gas supply runs low

The Ukrainian government and the separatist rebels blamed each other Friday for violating a fragile cease-fire dozens of times, sparking fears of wider hostilities in war-torn eastern Ukraine.

Conflict has killed more than 5,600 people, forced over a million to flee their homes

A member of the Ukrainian armed forces carries a shell case at the positions in Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine on Friday. (Oleksandr Klymenko/Reuters)

The Ukrainian government and the separatist rebels blamed each other Friday for violating a fragile cease-fire dozens of times, sparking fears of wider hostilities in war-torn eastern Ukraine.

Amid the tensions, Moscow sternly warned the cash-strapped Ukraine that its pay for Russian gas would only last for a few more days, raising the specter of another gas war with potential repercussions for Europe.

A Ukrainian military spokesman said the Russia-backed rebels fired on Ukrainian positions nearly 50 times in the past 24 hours and that Russia sent more tanks into Ukraine despite a cease-fire that was supposed to begin Sunday.

The rebels, meanwhile, claimed that Ukrainian forces had violated the cease-fire more than 20 times Friday.

The government claims, which followed the rebel seizure of the key rail hub of Debaltseve, raised the question of whether weeks of high-level diplomacy aimed at producing a cease-fire and a peace plan had simply allowed the rebels to redouble efforts to grab more territory.

The village of Kurakhovo, west of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, was hit by Grad rockets and the village of Berdyansk, near the key port city of Mariupol, was hit overnight by artillery and mortar fire, Lt. Col. Anatoliy Stelmakh, a Ukrainian military spokesman, told reporters.

Russia is still moving military equipment into Ukraine, including 10 tanks brought into Novoazovsk, near Mariupol, he added.

French President Francois Hollande, who brokered the peace deal last week together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said Friday he did not have confirmation about Russian tanks entering Ukraine.

"That doesn't mean this doesn't exist," he said, underscoring the need for the cease-fire to take hold and halt the risk of escalation.

Vladislav Seleznyev, a spokesman for Ukraine's military general staff, said two soldiers had been killed in the past day and 110 were being held prisoner by the rebels.

Both sides were supposed to begin drawing back heavy weapons from the front lines Tuesday, but international monitors say they have seen no signs of that.

CBC News is there

CBC News correspondent Nahlah Ayed is in eastern Ukraine with producer Tracy Seeley and cameraman Richard DeveyAyed sent this report Friday.

Donetsk is a city on pause. Despite the ceasefire, it still suffers the symptoms of war. Many shops are shuttered, some people live without electricity. Others must rely on humanitarian aid to survive, and still live in basement shelters. The buses are running, but the ATM’s long ago ran out of cash. Credit cards are no longer accepted. Factories are mostly idle.

A significant proportion of the population has left altogether, and to return, must run a gauntlet of three Ukrainian military and four rebel checkpoints. Gone are the tires and razor wire of the sit-ins at Donetsk’s administrative buildings. They’re now protected by armed rebels in uniform. The masks are gone too. But they are firmly in charge.

As of yesterday, Donetsk is supplied with Russian gas. And except for the shelling which goes on all day, Donetsk is a city beyond Kyiv’s control.

On mobile and can't see the tweet. Follow CBC's Nahlah Ayed here

Concerns are rising that the rebels are still gunning to take Mariupol, a government-held city on the Sea of Azov that could allow them to create a land bridge between Russia and Crimea, which Russia annexed last March. Crimea has no physical link to Russian territory now.

On Thursday, the rebels celebrated their victory over Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve, a key transport hub linking the two largest rebel strongholds in eastern Ukraine. Rebel fighters roamed the town's debris-littered streets, laughing, hugging and posing for photos, although the death of one fighter when his vehicle hit a land mine was a sharp reminder of the dangers that still lurked.

Ukrainian soldiers who made it out of Debaltseve alive on Thursday described weeks of harrowing rebel shelling, followed by a chaotic, hasty retreat. Ukrainian officials said 13 soldiers had been killed and 157 wounded in the fighting, but the shell-shocked soldiers themselves spoke of many more casualties.

"Starting at night, they would fire at us just to stop us from sleeping. They did this all night," a Ukrainian soldier named Andrei said after fleeing Debaltseve. "Then in the morning, they would attack, wave after wave."

Ukraine to pay in advance for gas shipments

While fighting continued in the east, Ukraine raised the pressure on the separatists Thursday by cutting off shipments of natural gas to the area. The national gas company Naftogaz linked the cutoff to damaged gas transit infrastructure and said supplies were resumed later in the day.

But Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Friday that Ukraine has still failed to restore gas shipments to the east, "putting people's lives and health under threat."

Medvedev reported to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he ordered the Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom to provide supplies directly to the east, which will be counted as part of the overall volume of Russian gas exports to Ukraine.

Following a bruising price and debt dispute last year, Russia now requires Ukraine to pay in advance for gas shipments, and Medvedev warned that its latest pay would only be good for another three to four days at the current level of consumption.

The statement raised the prospect of a cutoff in supplies that could affect European customers, who receive the bulk of Russian gas via pipelines crossing Ukraine.

Kyiv criticized for letting Debaltseve fall

The war in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 5,600 people and forced over a million to flee their homes since fighting began in April, a month after Russia annexed Crimea. Russia denies arming the rebels or supplying fighters, but Western nations and NATO point to satellite pictures of Russian military equipment in eastern Ukraine.

In Kyiv, nationalists criticized the government for allowing Debaltseve to fall.

Friday was a key anniversary for the months of anti-government protests in 2013-14 that brought down Ukraine's previous, Kremlin-friendly government. A year ago, sniper fire tore through crowds of protesters on Kyiv's main square, killing more than 50 people. Dozens more died in earlier clashes with police or were beaten to death under mysterious circumstances.

On Friday evening, President Petro Poroshenko was to be among those honouring them at a memorial ceremony in Kyiv.

Hollande and Merkel, who oversaw marathon peace talks last week between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine, warned Friday that more EU sanctions could be levelled if the peace accords to stabilize Ukraine are not respected.

Hollande said at a joint press conference that "every country that doesn't keep its word" risks sanctions.



To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?