DONETSK/ARTEMIVSK, UKRAINE – 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 cease-fire 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 Ukraine Army forces were encircled.
“Of course we can open fire (on Debaltseve). It is our territory,” senior rebel commander Eduard Basurin said. “The territory is internal: ours. And internal is internal. But along the line of confrontation there is no shooting.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, responsible for monitoring the cease-fire, said rebels had denied its observers access to Debaltseve. It said firing continued in the town, one of a few exceptions to a truce that was otherwise largely being observed.
Both sides blamed what firing there was on the enemy. But Debaltseve has been the focus of fighting for weeks, and it will be hard to speak of a truce if Ukrainian troops remain trapped there under fire, or the rebels press on with their advance.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday’s peace deal including the truce must be implemented “unconditionally.” But he made no mention of whether Moscow believes the truce applied to Debaltseve, and declined to comment on Basurin’s remarks.
On Sunday morning journalists heard volleys of artillery fire from the direction of Debaltseve after a night that had been mostly quiet.
Ukrainian forces have for weeks been holding out in the town, which sits astride a railway junction in a pocket between the two main rebel strongholds.
Rebels say they have completely encircled the town, but Ukraine says its forces have kept open a road to resupply it in the face of a Russian-backed onslaught.
Kiev military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Ukrainian forces foiled an attempt to close the circle in the last 24 hours.
Washington says regular Russian forces armed with tanks and missile launchers advanced on the town from all sides in the days before the truce.
Journalists operating on the rebel side have seen armored columns of troops without insignia arriving in the area in recent days.
In Donetsk, the main rebel center, journalists said artillery had been exploding every few seconds in the hours before the cease-fire, but halted abruptly at midnight.
A Ukrainian military spokesman said the cease-fire was being “generally observed.” Its forces had been shelled 10 times since the truce took effect in “localized” incidents, and no soldiers had been killed.
A Ukrainian staff officer stationed near Debaltseve said: “The general level (of attacks) has decreased, although there are violations.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, wearing the uniform of the armed forces’ supreme commander, announced the order to stop firing in a midnight televised address, but said there is still alarm over Debaltseve.
“I very much hope that the last chance to begin the long and difficult peaceful process for a political settlement will not be wasted,” he said, adding, however, that if Ukraine were slapped, it would not “turn the other cheek.
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