Withdrawal of heavy armour from the frontlines in Ukraine is set to begin on Monday February 16 under terms of the cease-fire deal aimed at ending the fighting in the country’s east. Sunday marked the first full day of the cease-fire, which appears largely to be holding except in the key railway town of Debaltseve, where most of the fighting has taken place this month.
On Sunday, pro-Russian rebels battling Ukrainian forces near the Russian border said the terms of the cease-fire did not apply to that contested town.
Rebel commander Eduard Basurin said separatist fighters would not observe the truce in Debaltseve, where thousands of Ukraine troops are believed encircled by rebel fighters. In comments to Reuters, he called the contested town “our territory.”
Basurin is quoted by Russia’s Interfax news agency as saying the truce deal “stipulates the withdrawal of heavy weapons 48 hours after the guns fall silent. That’s what we will be guided by,” he said.
In a statement late Sunday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the start of the cease-fire based on the terms agreed to in the Belarussian capital, Minsk. But he voiced serious concern about reports of continued hostilities in areas, including Debaltseve, and reiterated his call for all parties to abide by the truce.
Elsewhere along the jagged frontline separating the two sides, witnesses and officials on both sides on Sunday reported relative calm.
The four leaders who brokered last week’s truce – Russian president Vladimir Putin, German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Francois Hollande and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko – agreed in a conference call that fighting should end in Debaltseve as well. The devastated town has seen major fighting on a daily basis since earlier truce efforts failed last month.
The head of Ukraine’s security service, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko said Russian Cossacks appeared to be responsible for Sunday’s mortar shelling in the Luhansk region. He said an investigation is under way.
Earlier, Poroshenko ordered his forces to comply with a cease-fire that went into effect at midnight Saturday.
In a live midnight broadcast, Poroshenko said that as the commander of Ukraine’s military forces, he wants peace. He also warned Russian-backed separatist rebels against breaking the deal, while warning they were likely to do so.
Ukraine and a host of Western governments accuse Moscow of stoking the rebellion in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east with arms and fighters. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied providing direct support, and claims that Russian troops seen fighting alongside rebels are volunteers.
(Photo: Ukraine defence ministry)