Ukraine crisis: Kiev and pro-Russian rebels claim ceasefire was broken '139 times' on first day as both sides fail to withdraw heavy weapons

The ceasefire, agreed only last week, already appears to be fracturing as Merkel makes phone calls to Putin and Poroshenko

The Ukrainian ceasefire was broken over 139 times on the first day, Ukraine’s government and pro-Russian rebels have claimed, as a deadline to pull-out heavy weaponry came and went in the east of the country.

News of the violations come after Russian, Ukrainian and French leaders spoke on the phone last night in another – increasingly desperate – attempt to move the ceasefire from words of agreement into tangible action.

Both sides of the conflict are presently refusing to withdraw their heavier weaponry, previously agreed after 16-hour negotiations in Minsk, each claiming they will only do so when the other desists firing.

Ukrainian military spokesperson Andriy Lysenko claimed last night: “Five Ukrainian troops were killed and 25 wounded in the past 24 hours”.

“112 incidents of shelling is not a ceasefire. So we are not ready yet to withdraw," he told Sky News yesterday evening.

Meanwhile, senior pro-Russian rebel commander Eduard Basurin issued a counter claim that Ukrainian troops had also violated the agreement 27 times.

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Ukrainian armed forces ride on a military vehicle near Artemivsk, eastern Ukraine

Although fighting appears to have died down across much of the country, pockets remain live, particularly in the east. Reports of shelling and firefights have continued around the transport hub of Debaltseve.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who spoke with both Russian and Ukrainian leaders last night, issued a statement through her office that claimed all three had agreed on “concrete steps to enable an observation” of the town.

OSCE observers have been unable to gain access to the area, although correspondents have repeatedly reported instances of shelling, firing and general violations of the agreed ceasefire.

The town, presently held by Ukrainian government forces, is a key strategic point. Pro-Russian forces claim the city is surrounded and rightfully belongs to them.

Debaltseve was a sticking point during negotiations between Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian counterpart Petro Peroshenko.

Following the end of talks, the two leaders’ claims regarding the status of the area differed. Mr Poroshenko reiterated his government’s intention to hold the town, while Mr Putin implied the area was rightfully already within rebel territory.

Both Mr Poroshenko and Mrs Merkel have allegedly appealed to Mr Putin to use his influence to stem the fighting.

So far approximately 5,400 people have been killed in the conflict.

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A woman walks past a damaged building in the town of Vuhlehirsk near Donetsk, Ukraine

Kiev contests that the pro-Russian separatists to the east are armed and militarily support by the Kremlin – to the extent of Russian soldiers fighting.

It is a claim that Mr Putin has consistently denied, insisting that he can only influence events in the country and that he has no direct control over the separatist forces.

Additional reporting from Associated Press

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