Ukraine crisis: Shaky start for ceasefire with continued shelling outside key conflict zones

Mortar attacks from rebel-held territory, witnessed by The Independent, were directed against Ukrainian positions

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The Independent Online

The thud of mortar and plumes of smoke rising from the fields beyond Mironovsky today suggested that Ukraine’s latest ceasefire, meant to have taken effect just after midnight on Saturday, had at best got off to a shaky start.

While artillery fell silent across much of the conflict zone, here, as in other villages around the strategic battle for Debaltseve, there was only limited respite.

The mortar attack from rebel-held territory, witnessed by The Independent, was directed against Ukrainian positions, with the most likely aim being to sever an eastern supply route that serves the besieged government-held town of Debaltseve, 10 miles away. The main road that leads into Debaltseve was already effectively blocked, with Russian-backed forces maintaining their grip at Logvinove, four miles further along the road. On Sunday, the alternative eastern supply route was also under heavy bombardment.

 

“Chup”, a Ukrainian officer serving at the last checkpoint before Logvinove, laughed at the suggestion of a “ceasefire”. He says that the Ukrainians had been subjected to an “onslaught” from the hour the Presidents gave their final press conferences in Minsk. While he acknowledged that things had been quieter since the official start of the ceasefire at midnight, he said the Ukrainian side had nonetheless recorded several rounds of incoming mortars and Grad rockets, from 6am onwards. “You see for yourselves that we are some way off a ceasefire”, he said.

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Ukrainian soldiers play football on the road leading to Debaltseve

Soldiers at the checkpoint claimed the Ukrainians had not responded to the ceasefire breach, but The Independent observed outgoing rounds about 30 minutes later.

At least six Ukrainian officers were injured by Sunday’s rebel attacks, all of them being taken for treatment to a staging hospital in nearby Artemivsk. These were the luckier ones; some 40 other injured Ukrainian soldiers had been effectively trapped in Debaltseve for days, until medical officers of the 55th battalion were finally able to break through and evacuate them.

Sergei Nikolaevich, one of the medics involved in the operation, said that the group had been unable to evacuate all of the injured, and had been forced to abandon heavily decomposed corpses. He described how they had driven high trucks through rivers and over fields, delivering supplies and bringing the wounded out. “We take food and munitions that way, and return with the injured”, he said. Meanwhile, three injured soldiers reached Ukrainian positions on foot, having given up hope that the team would ever arrive.

Nikolaevich’s focus was the soldiers, but he admitted that more than 1,000 civilians remained trapped in Debaltseve. “We see grannies walking around, disoriented, but we don’t know what to do with them. Where can we take them?” he said.

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The funeral of a seven-year-old boy killed when a shell hit his school

Officials of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is meant to observe the ceasefire under the terms of the accord, reported that rebels had denied their monitors access to Debaltseve and Logvinove. They confirmed that firing continued in the town, but said that elsewhere in eastern Ukraine the ceasefire had otherwise been “largely observed”. It appears that the Russian-backed rebels are intent on fully encircling the Ukrainian army units in Debaltseve and will not stop fighting until the town falls into their hands.

“Chup” said he feared a repeat of the rebel action in Ilovaisk in late August, when he says Russian army units joined separatist forces to block entry and exit routes, then ambushed the remaining Ukrainians, resulting in several hundred being killed.

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The officer said he was certain Russian forces were also engaged in the Debaltseve battles. “If you show me soldiers just with mortars, rifles and so on, I can believe they are separatists. But I can be sure that it isn’t separatists manning stations, or launching Smerch and Uragan rockets.”

The “rebel” artillery had been hitting its targets with deadly accuracy “that takes years of professional training”, he said. The US State Department said satellite images offer “credible pieces of evidence” that the Russian military has deployed multiple rocket launchers around Debaltseve to shell Ukrainian forces.

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