East Ukraine's rebels prepare for a long cold war

LUKOVE, Ukraine - As winter approaches in Ukraine's eastern countryside, pro-Russian rebels and Kiev forces eye each other uneasily across a ragged frontline. Despite signing a truce, both seem to be digging in for the long haul.

"We are repairing this tank after it was hit by mortar shells yesterday. The war will be long. If Kiev wanted peace it would have finished a long time ago," a rebel commander of a checkpoint near the village of Lukove said.

The commander, who calls himself Starshina (Sergeant) points across the harvested sunflower fields to Ukrainian positions three kilometres away, about 65 kilometres (40 miles) south of the rebel hub Donetsk.

"You can see their tanks and mortar launchers to the right, and to the left are the Grad multiple rocket launchers. And everywhere, they are digging shelters and reinforcing their positions," he said.

In the no-man's land between the rebel and Ukrainian lines lie fields and a small river. A boy of five shows off a chunk of mortar, as big as his hand, which he found in the fields.

"There are plenty others there," he said.

"There is firing every day. Today it began in the morning. I don't see why we signed a ceasefire," bemoaned Starshina, eyeing the Ukrainians based near the village of Chermalyk.

Behind him, two soldiers are busy repairing the tank's broken turret. A little further out, two armoured vehicles stand hidden in the bushes.

"We took it all from the Ukrainian army," Starshina claims.

He and several members of his unit are originally from Slavyansk, a former rebel hub of the Donetsk region which the army took over in July, forcing the rebel command to relocate to Donetsk.

'Winter will be tough'

About thirty kilometres from Starshina's barricades towards the town of Novoazovsk on the Azov sea, AFP journalists were stopped by the rebels and prevented from going any further.

The reason given is that Ukrainians are shooting at Novoazovsk and nobody is allowed through.

Kiev's version of events in the area however is radically different. Spokesman Volodymyr Seleznyov said the rebels shelled Ukrainian positions near Novoazovsk from Grad launchers and artillery guns.

Since Kiev and the Russia-backed rebels signed the ceasefire agreement on September 5, eastern Ukraine has been far from calm, with continued crossfire and signs that both sides are digging in for winter.

Though the intensity of attacks has decreased considerably, along with the daily toll, Donetsk is still gripped by near daily artillery blasts and destruction in civilian neighbourhoods.

Sub-zero temperatures already descend nightly in the conflict zone, making life difficult for fighters on both sides, with everyone seeming to expect the conflict will continue.

Wood is being used to power heating stoves and, for those with the skills, to construct more permanent shelters to withstand the cold and rain.

"Winter will be tough. We are preparing," a young soldier, former taxi driver from Donetsk, told AFP while chopping wood at a checkpoint.