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Eastern Ukrainian cities under fire as leaders weigh truce

Philippe Desmazes, AFP | Ukrainian soldiers take up positions outside Mariupol

Strong explosions were reported on the outskirts of Mariupol and shelling hit the suburbs of Donetsk on Thursday as President Petro Poroshenko and pro-Russian separatists said a Friday ceasefire was on the cards.

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Reporters heard repeated blasts and saw plumes of black smoke rising a few kilometres to the east of the strategic port of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine on Thursday.

Earlier, a military source said Ukraine's army was on a state of heightened alert near Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Azov Sea that guards the way towards Russian-annexed Crimea.

Speaking from Mariupol, FRANCE 24's chief international editor Rob Parsons said he was turned away when he tried to travel eastwards on Thursday morning. Ukrainian soldiers told him there was fighting 10 kilometres outside of the city. "They said the Russians were attacking in two colums," he reported, adding that other sources had mentioned four columns with one including 20 tanks.

FRANCE 24's Rob Parsons reports from Mariupol

A Ukrainian soldier told Reuters he had seen pro-Russian separatists advancing on the city with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery.

"Our plan is to stay here (in an eastern district of Mariupol) and not to budge an inch," said the soldier, who was from Ukraine's Azov batallion.

"The big concern here is whether or not the Ukrainian forces are strong enough to hold up an attack," FRANCE 24's Parsons said, though he saw no sign of panic among the local population.

Ceasefire plan

The fighting erupted just as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that a ceasefire plan aimed at bringing a halt to nearly five months of conflict would be signed in Belarus on Friday.

"Tomorrow in Minsk a document will be signed providing for the gradual introduction of the Ukrainian peace plan," he said on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Wales on Thursday. "It is very important that the first element provides for a ceasefire," he added, saying that he would order Ukrainian forces to suspend hostilities at 11am if an agreement was found.

Representatives of Kiev, Moscow, the separatist rebels and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe are due to meet in the Belarussian capital on Friday.

Pro-Russian separatist leaders, too, have said they would enforce a ceasefire on Friday if an agreement was signed in Minsk.

Alexander Zakharchenko, the head of the self-declared People's Republic of Donetsk, and Igor Plotnitsky, leader of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Luhansk, said in a statement the rebels "are ready ... at 15:00 (local time) to order a ceasefire, if an agreement is reached and Ukrainian representatives sign a plan for the political settlement of the conflict."

Government forces shelled residential suburbs of Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city. Houses in the leafy Petrovka district were pockmarked with shrapnel and residents had sought refuge in a bomb shelter.

"I don't think they can reach any agreements now. Each side comes up with conditions unacceptable for the other. And so we get shelled," a resident who gave her name as Lena told Reuters.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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