Frontline city in east Ukraine imposes tough new security measures

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko

MARIUPOL, Ukraine- Pro-Kiev authorities in Mariupol, a frontline city in the conflict between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists, announced on Wednesday a night curfew and other restrictions for nearby towns and villages to help control rebel movements during a fragile ceasefire.

Some locals complained that the measures - which do not apply to the city of Mariupol itself - amounted to "undeclared martial law"; but others deemed them a necessary step enabling Ukrainian authorities to better monitor the shaky five-day ceasefire and prevent rebels exploiting it. "With these measures, the border guards are trying to deny the rebels the ability to reconnoitre our positions under cover of civilians' movements," one military officer told Reuters. "This is not martial law. We want them to show themselves. If someone is out there between 8pm and 6am we will know they are not civilians and we can take appropriate measures." Mariupol, a strategic port on the Sea of Azov vital for Ukraine's steel exports, has been a flashpoint in a five-month conflict in which more than 3,000 people have been killed.

Before last Friday's ceasefire, the rebels had made big advances towards Mariupol, backed up - Kiev says - by Russian troops and weaponry. Moscow denies sending troops into Ukraine or arming the rebels.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Wednesday Russia had removed the bulk of its troops from Ukrainian soil as part of moves towards a settlement.

As well as the night-time curfew, city authorities have banned columns of vehicles and the transport of various kinds of equipment, imposed strict speed restrictions and increased document checks in those areas affected.

The measures apply to a string of villages and small towns to the east of Mariupol. The city is about 50 km (35 miles) from the Russian border.

The military officer said rebels had been using civilian vehicles to access Ukrainian positions for reconnaissance purposes and to transport men and supplies around the area.

At a checkpoint between Mariupol and the village of Sartana to the north of the city on Wednesday, men of the Azov volunteer militia were controlling traffic and checking documents. "They check us and then they let us go, and we understand this because it is wartime," said Nikolay, a driver of a beaten-up Lada whose trunk was filled with watermelons.

Car salesman Grigory agreed that tighter security measures were needed to prevent the rebels profiting from the ceasefire. "They are separating us from separatists, they are establishing new borders," he said. "Ukraine does not need them (the separatist regions) and if they want it that way they can stay over there and rot." But Denis, another local who described himself as a staunch supporter of the rebels, said the move was "dictatorial". "Only fascists stop ordinary folk from travelling. They want to separate friends and families, this is undeclared martial law," he said.