Ukraine ceasefire said to be holding – but only just

Germany's Chancellor  Angela Merkel with Ukraine President Poroshenko

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel with Ukraine President Poroshenko

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, agreeing to move towards implementing the next stage of the latest Minsk deal, the statement said. According to the agreement, cessation of hostilities is only the first step and should be followed on day two of the ceasefire by the start of the withdrawal of heavy weapons to create two demilitarised buffer zones between 50-140km (30-85 miles) wide.

Analysts point out that previous ceasefires initially appeared to be holding but eventually failed, and say the next 48 hours are critical. Officials say more than 5,400 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine in April, but the UN believes the actual death toll to be much higher. Ukraine’s rebels disavowed a new truce on Sunday hours after it took effect, saying it did not apply to the town where most fighting has taken place in recent weeks.

Guns fell abruptly silent at midnight across much of eastern Ukraine in line with the ceasefire agreement, reached after a week of diplomacy led by France and Germany. But pro-Russian rebels announced they would not observe the truce at Debaltseve, where Ukrainian army forces were encircled and Kiev military said rebel attacks on the town steadily increased from mid-afternoon on Sunday. “Of course we can open fire (on Debaltseve). It is our territory,” senior rebel commander Eduard Basurin told Reuters. “The territory is internal: ours. And internal is internal. But along the line of confrontation there is no shooting.”

A statement by the Kiev military on Sunday night said the “enemy” was carrying out attacks with varied types of weapons, including Grad rocket systems, and had a plan to try to seize Debaltseve from the west. In a four-way telephone conversation with the leaders of Germany, France and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the position of the four at peace talks last week in Belarus had been for a ceasefire on all the front lines including at Debaltseve.

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