LUHANSKE, Ukraine – Intense artillery exchanges between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists around a strategic town in the east persisted Monday in fighting that threatens to dash a cease-fire deal brokered last week.
The warring sides are under an agreement negotiated by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France to begin withdrawing heavy weapons from the front line Tuesday. That plan already looks at risk with the rebels saying they are not satisfied the conditions are in place for the process to go ahead.
Associated Press reporters in Luhanske, a government-held town about 15 kilometres northwest of the bitterly contested railway hub in Debaltseve, heard sounds of sustained and regular shelling. Some of the artillery appeared to be outgoing, suggesting it was being fired by Ukrainian troops.
A loaded Grad rocket launcher was seen pointing in the direction of Debaltseve, but it was not fired while AP journalists were present.
Despite the cease-fire, Debaltseve still remains in contention as rebels insist the town should automatically revert to their control as it has been encircled by their fighters.
Observers from the Organization from Security and Cooperation in Europe, who have been tasked with monitoring implementation of the peace deal, said Sunday that separatists have denied them access to Debaltseve.
In New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern in a statement late on Sunday over continued hostilities around Debaltseve and reiterated his call “for all parties to abide by the cease-fire without exception.”
The cease-fire that went into effect at one minute after midnight Sunday had raised cautious hopes for an end to the 10-month-old conflict, which has already claimed more than 5,300 lives.
But Ukraine and rebel officials have already traded multiple accusations of attacks since then.
Separatist military official Eduard Basurin said in a televised news conference on Monday that the government overnight lobbed artillery at Horlivka, a town under rebel control.
Ukraine blamed the attack on the rebels. The government-appointed police chief of the Donetsk region, Vyacheslav Abroskin, said the separatists shelled the town in order to derail the truce.
Both the separatists and the Ukrainian government insist they are committed to the cease-fire negotiated in 16-hour talks that ended Thursday morning and involved Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French leader Francois Hollande.
In line with the truce, both parties are due to begin withdrawing heavy weaponry from their positions early Tuesday.
Russian news agency Interfax quoted Basurin as saying Monday that the conditions are not yet in place for that pullback to happen.
“We will begin pulling back equipment from the line of contact if we receive a certain signal, which is if the Ukrainians also do the same thing,” Basurin was quoted as saying.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of arming and supplying manpower to the separatists and have imposed a range of economic sanctions in a bid to pressure Moscow into changing course. Russia denies all suggestions it is directly involved in the war in Ukraine.
On Monday, the European Union added 19 more people and nine organizations to its list of sanctioned Russian entities. Those included two Russian deputy defence ministers, eastern Ukraine-born Russian crooner Iosif Kobzon, who sang to the rebel leaders in Donetsk late last year, as well as several separatist commanders.