Ukraine fighting subsides after ceasefire agreement
Battles raged for much of the day near port of Mariupol and rebel stronghold of Donetsk
Soldiers of the Ukrainian self-defence battalion “Azov” rest at a checkpoint in the southern coastal town of Mariupol. Photograph: Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters
Heavy fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels appeared to subside after envoys meeting in Minsk approved a peace deal that included a ceasefire that came into effect this afternoon.
Minutes after the ceasefire was due to come into force, three explosions were heard north of the city of Donetsk. It was not immediately clear how serious the blasts were.
Ukraine‘s president Petro Poroshenko said envoys from Ukraine, the pro-Russian separatist leadership, Russia and Europe‘s OSCE security watchdog had agreed the ceasefire and a peace plan for the war-shattered region in talks in Minsk.
Fighting had raged for much of the day in two areas of eastern Ukraine - near the strategic port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and further north in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, mainly near the city airport which remains in government hands.
Reporters heard more Ukrainian shelling of rebel positions east of Mariupol about two hours before the ceasefire was scheduled to start. Under the ceasefire terms, both sides are meant to stay in their current positions.
A Ukrainian military spokesman said the situation in Mariupol “stabilised“ after the announcement of the ceasefire.
Kiev 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 their forces had entered Mariupol today.
“(This claim) is not true. We have even driven them back from the positions they held before,“ said Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine‘s National Security and Defence Council.
A spokesman for the rebels‘ self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People‘s Republic‘ (DNR) told Reuters: “The army of the DNR has partly entered Mariupol. But the city is not taken.“
Mariupol became a major focus of concern for Ukraine after the rebels broke out of their main strongholds further north in late August - backed, Kiev 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 Kiev 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.
However, few in eastern Ukraine, wearied by nearly six months of conflict, have much hope that a ceasefire can hold and some said it was a bad idea that would only benefit the enemy.
“A ceasefire would be a disaster, we would lose everything. By fighting, we can resist the invasion and send them back. With a ceasefire, they will consolidate and carry on after a while,“ said Taras, a Ukrainian soldier, speaking before the announcement of the deal in Minsk.