MOSCOW – Ukraine’s truce was tested by battles between government forces and separatists as Russia’s opposition held a peace march to protest President Vladimir Putin’s policy in the neighboring country.
The government in Kiev and the rebels traded accusations of cease-fire violations even after they agreed to create a buffer zone to strengthen the pact. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, the demonstrations ended without serious incident. Estimates about the size of the crowd in the Russian capital ranged from 5,000 people, according to police, to 100,000, cited by Boris Nemtsov, a protest leader.
Daily clashes have threatened to capsize the truce since it was signed Sept. 5. The country’s bloodiest conflict since World War II has left more than 3,200 dead and 8,000 injured, according to the United Nations. Fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions started after Russia annexed Crimea in March.
“A lasting cease-fire remains key to the success of the current efforts to reach a sustainable political solution,” the European Union said in a statement Sunday. “All elements of the Minsk Protocol and of this agreement must now be fully implemented by all sides.”
Rebels shelled government troops and the situation in the country’s easternmost regions was “tense,” the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said on Facebook Monday. The Ukrainian army breached the cease-fire seven times Sunday, the Donetsk insurgents said, according to the Russian state-run RIA Novosti news service.
The agreement to create a weapons-free zone of 30 km (18 miles) was reached at 1:30 a.m. Saturday in Minsk, Belarus, by former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, the heads of the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist forces, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov, and Heidi Tagliavini of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“This was a long, but constructive, dialogue that allowed us to sign the important document,” Kuchma said Saturday. “We will hope for the better while preparing for everything.”
The no-fire zone brackets troop positions from both sides as of Saturday. Weaponry on either side will be pulled back at least 15 km, creating a buffer between the front lines. The OSCE will send monitors to the no-fire zone within 24 hours of the pact’s signing, according to Kuchma.
Ukraine forces will only pull back if the rebels hold fire and only simultaneously with the separatist forces, Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the country’s military, told reporters in Kiev Sunday.
Gunfire and explosions were heard near Donetsk, the largest city in the conflict zone, hours after the agreement. A munitions factory was heavily damaged, sending a massive plume of smoke into the air.
While the army started to implement the provisions of the agreement, its response fire killed at least 40 rebels, according to the Defense Ministry in Kiev. Ukrainian forces came under fire in 26 locations, it said.
The situation in Donetsk remained tense as of noon local time, with the sound of gunfire heard in several districts, the city council said on its website. Water supply was damaged by “intensive shelling” overnight and work is also underway to repair disruptions in power services, it said.
Saturday, the ministry reported that government forces had killed 20 armed rebels. The situation in Mariupol, located on the coast of the Sea of Azov, remained “stable,” with the city under control of Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainian army held a parade in the city Saturday, the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda reported.
Ukrainian forces detected a Russian drone over the city and two helicopters nearby on Russian territory, Lysenko said. Government forces lost two soldiers and eight servicemen were wounded in the past 24 hours, he said.
“Basically we have a cease-fire in name only,” U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme commander for Europe, told reporters in Vilnius, Lithuania, Saturday. “The number of events and rounds fired and the artillery used across the past few days match some of the pre-cease-fire levels.”
Even amid the clashes, the two sides continued a prisoner swap, another clause in the Sept. 5 cease-fire agreement. The sides exchanged 38 captives each Saturday and the rebels expected to receive 27 more people Sunday, the Russian state-controlled RIA Novosti news service reported, citing an unidentified representative of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Meanwhile, a Russian convoy of 185 trucks carrying 2,000 tons of food, clothing, medicine and water arrived Saturday without incident in Donetsk, the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic said on its website. The separatists’ website said the goods were to be distributed beginning Sunday.
The International Red Cross said it can’t help with distributing the Russian aid, the third such shipment since the conflict began, without Ukraine agreeing to receive it.
The convoy of about 200 trucks carried medicine, water, food and power generators, according to Itar-Tass. All the vehicles have since returned to Russia, Itar-Tass said Sunday.
The fighting has caused about $440 million of damage in the conflict zone, where more than 70 percent of business have shut down and the availability of food is “fragile,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a report dated Sept. 19.
More than 275,000 people have been internally displaced, though the number “can be assumed to be much higher” due to the lack of a registration system, according to the report. About 341,000 people have fled abroad, including more than 300,000 to Russia, it said.
NATO’s Breedlove was speaking Saturday in the capital of Lithuania, one of three former Soviet republics that are now part of the trans-Atlantic organization.
Russian troops are still in Ukraine, Breedlove said, though it was impossible to accurately count how many. He acknowledged a reduction in forces back across the border into Russia. The government in Moscow denies involvement in the conflict.
Russian forces still lingering near the Ukraine border are “completely capable of doing what they did a little over a week ago, which is cross that border and impart their military will on the Ukrainian military,” Breedlove said.
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