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Guns mostly fall silent in east Ukraine as ceasefire takes hold | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Ukrainian tanks near Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine, on February 14, 2015. (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

Ukrainian tanks patrol near Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine, on February 14, 2015. (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)

Ukrainian tanks patrol near Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine, on February 14, 2015. (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)

Donetsk and Artemivsk, Reuters—Guns fell abruptly silent at midnight across much of eastern Ukraine in line with a ceasefire agreement, although periodic shooting near a front-line railway junction showed that the truce was fragile.

Reuters journalists in Donetsk, the main rebel stronghold, said artillery bombardment halted at midnight and they heard no firing overnight, after intense final hours before the ceasefire when shells had exploded every few seconds.

A single explosion could be heard in the morning from an outlying suburb.

A Reuters photographer in government-held territory also said constant bombardment had halted overnight, although he heard a volley of artillery around 7 am from the direction of Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub town where Ukrainian forces have nearly been surrounded by advancing rebels.

The Ukrainian government said on Sunday morning that the ceasefire was being “generally observed”. Its forces had been shelled 10 times in the hours since the truce took effect, but it described those incidents as “localized” rather than regular. None of its soldiers were killed in the last 24 hours.

“Yesterday and the day before were hot, they were shooting from here and from there. But today is quiet and calm. All is good,” said Donetsk resident Rodion Biralyan, 50.

A Ukrainian staff officer stationed near Debaltseve said: “The general level [of attacks] has decreased, although there are violations.”

Washington accused Moscow of sending armored columns of troops into action in the final days before the ceasefire to help pro-Russian rebels score territorial gains before the truce took effect.

Nevertheless, the ceasefire restored some semblance of calm for the first time since pro-Russian rebels spurned a previous ceasefire last month and launched an advance that had alarmed Western countries.

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, wearing the uniform of the armed forces supreme commander, said in a midnight televised address in the capital Kiev that he had ordered troops to stop firing in line with the truce.

He said there was still alarm over the situation around Debaltseve.

The ceasefire, negotiated in four-power talks on Thursday, foresees creation of a neutral buffer zone and withdrawal of heavy weapons. More than 5,000 people have been killed in a conflict that has caused the worst crisis in Russia-West relations since the Cold War.

Russian President Vladimir Putin denies Moscow is involved in fighting for territory he calls “New Russia.” Western officials cite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and Washington and its allies have imposed economic sanction on Moscow.

Poroshenko said that if Ukraine were slapped once, it would not offer the other cheek. But, seated alongside armed forces chief of staff Viktor Muzhenko, he added: “I very much hope that the last chance to begin the long and difficult peaceful process for a political settlement will not be wasted.”

In the hours leading up to the ceasefire, heavy artillery and rocket fire roughly every five seconds had reverberated across Donetsk, the main regional city in the east which is under the control of the secessionists. Ukrainian authorities said two civilians were killed by shells that hit a town minutes past midnight.

US Secretary of State John Kerry urged implementation of the ceasefire in a telephone call with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and expressed concern about efforts by Russia and the separatists to cut off Debaltseve, the US State Department said.

US President Barack Obama expressed “deep concern” about the violence around Debaltseve in a telephone call with Poroshenko, the White House said. Obama also spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who negotiated the ceasefire along with President François Hollande of France at all night talks with the leaders of Ukraine and Russia.

The Kremlin said the four leaders who negotiated the truce would continue to speak by phone.

Maxim, a rebel fighter at a checkpoint on a road from Donetsk to government-held Dnipropetrovsk, told Reuters it was indeed quiet but he did not expect the ceasefire to hold.

“Truce? I doubt it. Maybe 2–3 days and then they will start shooting again. This is all for show. The OSCE is driving around here, so of course they are being quiet,” he said. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has monitors to observe the truce.

During Saturday’s shelling of Donetsk, a Reuters witness saw one dead body from attacks where four shells had blasted holes in the pavement.

The 15-member UN Security Council was discussing a Russian-drafted resolution that would welcome the ceasefire agreement and call on all parties to fully implement it. Diplomats said the council could vote as early as Sunday on the draft resolution.

The US State Department, pressing its case that Russia was backing the rebels in the latest fighting, on Saturday released three commercial photographs that spokeswoman Jen Psaki said showed “the Russian military has deployed large amounts of artillery and multiple rocket launchers around Debaltseve, where it is shelling Ukrainian positions.”

“We are confident that these are Russian military, not separatist systems,” she said.

Before the ceasefire took effect, heavy shelling could be heard at a rebel checkpoint about 10 miles (15 kilometers) west of Debaltseve, a Reuters witness said, reporting outgoing artillery rounds almost every minute.

A column of new military vehicles and artillery passed through the checkpoint in the direction of Debaltseve. The checkpoint was manned by several dozen professional-looking combatants. Tanks and armored vehicles could also be seen.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a rebel at the checkpoint said local fighters were being supported by “guests from Russia.”

The rebels have advanced far past the line of a ceasefire deal agreed in September. The new accord appears to envisage them withdrawing guns around 50 miles (75 kilometers) back behind it, while Ukrainian guns would move 15 miles (25 kilometers) back.

Thursday’s accord also prescribed constitutional reform to give more autonomy to eastern Ukraine, where Russian is the primary language of most residents. Kiev rejects independence for the “people’s republics” the rebels have declared.