Relief, but doubts at truce in Ukraine conflict zone

DONETSK, Ukraine - Residents of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk breathed a sigh of relief on Sunday morning following a first night without bombardments after a fragile ceasefire came into force in east Ukraine.

But despite the sudden outbreak of peace few around the conflict zone seemed confident that the truce would last long after the collapse of previous ceasefire deals.

"I have trouble believing that the ceasefire will be respected for long. But even if it lasts a few days, then that isn't bad," said pensioner Andrei, 77, who lives in one of the worst affected areas of the city.

"That would maybe allow us to re-establish water, gas and electricity to our house after it was cut off since bombing in January."

Across the road from the railway station - which has been shelled repeatedly - there was more life on the streets of Donetsk than at any time in recent months.

"There are ten times more people at the market than normal," said cake-stall worker Irina, 55. "It is almost like it was before the war."

Irina said she would dearly love to believe that the end of fighting had come and peace was here to stay but she feared that was too much to expect.

"We always have hope because you can't live without hope, but if you think about it there is little chance that this will last."

Running a neighbouring stall, Natalia recounted how she waited with bated breath for the start of the ceasefire that started at 2200 GMT Saturday.

"We waited for the truce to start like you do when the clock ticks down to New Year," said Natalia, 50.

"But the people here have been so affected by the daily bombardments that they find it hard to believe that the situation can improve."

Underlining the fragility of the situation, an AFP reporter heard several mortars being fired and a brief burst of shooting from automatic weapons at around midday close to a Ukrainian frontline position on the edge of the city.

Troops play football

Around the rest of the conflict zone the ceasefire appeared to be being generally respected despite getting off to a rocky start.

An elderly man and woman died after Grad missile fire hit the town of Popasna in Lugansk region some 20 minutes after a truce came into force at midnight local time (2200 GMT Saturday), local Kiev-loyal governor Gennadiy Moskal said.

Some 25 kilometres from the flashpoint town of Debaltseve, where just a few hours before fierce battles had raged as rebel forces tried to surround Ukrainian troops, government soldiers were playing football and reading.

The sound of isolated explosions could be heard in the distance but it was insignificant compared to before the ceasefire.

"At this moment, just now, there are no shellings, and the night was quiet. But an hour and a half ago there were shots and shooting," a soldier told AFP.

Like others around the region the government troops are highly sceptical about the prospects of any ceasefire definitively stopping 10 months of fighting that has killed over 5,480.

"There is hope, of course, but very small," another soldier said.

In Debaltseve deputy regional police chief Ilya Kiva told AFP by phone that firing there and in the nearby village of Chornuhine had dropped off but not stopped entirely.

"If before they were shooting at us with Grads every 37 seconds then now they're firing mortars but with big intervals between," Kiva said.

"We hope that it will just take a bit of time before we get a full ceasefire. It is not an immediate process."