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Ukraine ceasefire at risk amid shelling in Mariupol, Donetsk

Philippe Desmazes, AFP | A man walks past a burnt Ukrainian army truck on the outskirts of Mariupol

Shelling erupted in eastern Ukraine’s strategic port of Mariupol and the city of Donetsk overnight, threatening a fragile ceasefire agreed Friday between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists.

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The ceasefire – brokered in Minsk by envoys from Ukraine, the separatist leadership, Russia and Europe’s OSCE security watchdog – is part of a broader peace plan intended to end a five-month-long conflict that has killed nearly 3,000 people.

The renewed shelling broke out hours after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko had agreed in a telephone call that the truce was holding and had discussed ways of allowing in shipments of humanitarian aid.

Both sides blamed the other on Sunday for the ceasefire violations.

The shelling in Donetsk came from near the airport, which has come under frequent attack by pro-Russian separatists ever since government forces took control of it in May.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces also came under artillery fire overnight in Mariupol, which lies to the south of Donetsk on the Sea of Azov.

FRANCE 24’s Rob Parsons reports from Mariupol

“Quite clearly this is in serious violation of the ceasefire agreement,” FRANCE 24’s senior foreign editor, Rob Parsons, reported from Mariupol. “Whether one can make generalisations about it and say that this is the end of the ceasefire, it’s probably too early to say.”

One woman was killed and three others were injured in the violence. Local media said that the 33-year-old victim was the first civilian casualty since the ceasefire came into effect.

‘Terrorists’

In the days before the ceasefire, government forces had been trying to repel a major rebel offensive targeting Mariupol, a key port for shipping Ukrainian steel overseas. Kiev said the rebels were backed by Russian troops, a charge Moscow has denied.

“They, terrorists, Russians, are trying to scare us. They have no respect for the ceasefire. They are lying all the time. They are people with no honour,” said Slavik, a Ukrainian soldier armed with a machine gun.

“We left this area the day before yesterday. Everyone saw us pulling out tanks in line with the agreement. We only left lightly armed people to man checkpoints and these monsters violated every word of the agreement,” he said.

A separatist leader, Andrei Purgin, told Russia’s RIA news agency: “Despite the provocations of Ukrainian forces, the militia of the people’s republics (self-proclaimed “states” in Donetsk and nearby Luhansk that do not recognise Kiev’s authority) will keep firmly to the Minsk agreements. The militias are not resorting and will not resort to arms.”

The peace roadmap agreed on Friday also includes an exchange of prisoners of war and establishing a humanitarian corridor for refugees and aid.

Interfax news agency reported that the first POWs were handed over to government forces late on Saturday but this report could not be confirmed immediately.

Poroshenko agreed to the ceasefire after Ukraine accused Russia of sending troops and arms onto its territory in support of the separatists, who had suffered big losses over the summer. Moscow denies sending troops or arming the rebels.

The Ukrainian president spent Thursday and Friday at a NATO summit in Wales at which US President Barack Obama and other leaders urged Putin to pull Russian forces out of Ukraine. NATO also approved wide-ranging plans to boost its defences in eastern Europe in response to the Ukraine crisis.

The conflict in Ukraine has revived talk of a new Cold War, as the West accuses Putin of deliberately destabilising the former Soviet republic. Putin says he is defending the interests of ethnic Russians facing discrimination and oppression.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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