MARIUPOL: Powerful explosions in a key frontline city in eastern Ukraine on Saturday (Sep 6) raised fears that a day-old truce between government and rebel forces had already collapsed. Numerous explosions were heard and thick smoke was visible on the horizon of Mariupol, a government-held port city in the east of the country. A checkpoint held by Ukraine loyalists seemed to be on fire late on Saturday, according to AFP journalists close to the scene.
The renewed violence came just hours after a phone call between Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who agreed that a ceasefire signed on Friday "was generally being observed". The 12-point pact was the first to gain the backing of both Kiev and Moscow after five months of fighting that has claimed 2,800 lives and triggered the deepest crisis in East-West relations for a generation.
A Ukrainian army checkpoint on a road leading to Russia burns after loud explosions were heard on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine. (AFP/Philippe Desmazes)
But the renewed violence threatened a repeat of the unilateral ceasefire called by Kiev in June, which collapsed within days. Both sides were accusing each other on Saturday of breaching the truce within hours of its signing in the Belarussian capital Minsk.
"WE WANT OUR OWN PRESIDENT"
The pro-Russian separatists insisted they will not give up their ambitions for an independent state in the industrial east with binding diplomatic and trade ties to Russia. "We want our own president, our own currency and our own banking system," a pro-Russian guerrilla named Oleg told AFP in the Donetsk region town of Yasynuvata. "This is the only way. There is no other alternative."
Western leaders accuse Russia of actively fomenting the rebellion by funnelling large numbers of troops and heavy weaponry across the border - claims which Moscow has repeatedly denied. Despite the ceasefire, the US and the EU agreed to beef up sanctions against Russia, and NATO approved a rapid reaction force aimed at reassuring jittery Eastern European states.
Russia warned it would respond if the EU imposes more sanctions, accusing Brussels of supporting the "party of war" in Kiev. "Instead of feverishly searching for ways to hurt the economies of its own countries and Russia, the European Union would do better to work on supporting the economic revival of the Donbass region" of eastern Ukraine, its foreign ministry said on Saturday.
Full details of the peace accord have not been disclosed, although some of the terms called for both sides to start pulling back from major flashpoints and exchanging prisoners from Saturday. Russia is also being allowed to supply the devastated cities of east Ukraine with humanitarian aid that Kiev had previously opposed out of fear the convoys could be used to smuggle arms. There was no indication if any of the articles had yet been implemented on the ground on Saturday.
Although Poroshenko said he was "satisfied" with the agreement, it opens him up to accusations that he has surrendered to recent rebel advances and failed to reunify the nation of 45 million under a pro-Western banner, as he promised at the time of his election in May.
"THEY ARE BANDITS"
The rebels launched a lightning counter-offensive across the southeast in late August that dramatically reversed recent gains by the Ukrainian army. The peace pact could leave the separatists - who remain deeply mistrustful of the nationalist-leaning government in Kiev - in effective control of a region that accounts for one-sixth of Ukraine's population and a quarter of its exports.
The months of fighting have left dozens of towns in the east in ruins, and once-powerful factories and coal mines that form the backbone of Ukraine's economy have ground to a halt. "It's impossible to trust them (the rebels), they are bandits," said Natalia, a 54-year-old professor staying with friends in Mariupol after fleeing Donetsk.
A Human Rights Watch report on Saturday accused pro-Russian rebels of committing "serious violations of the laws of war", claiming they were forcing civilians to work in "punishment brigades" on pain of death.
But, despite strong rhetoric, there appears to be little appetite in Western capitals to become directly involved in ensuring the peace. "This is obviously a ceasefire that has to be held between Russia and Ukraine," US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "This isn't about the United States; this is about them."