Ukraine’s truce is at risk of unraveling over the fate of a contested transport hub after the first day of a cease-fire brought a decrease in violence.
The government in Kiev and pro-Russian militants accused each other of several violations near the town of Debaltseve, a key rail junction on the road that connects the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Fighting subsided along most of the front line of about 400 kilometers (250 miles) as world leaders urged the sides to adhere to the agreement signed last week in Minsk, Belarus.
The standoff near Debaltseve emerged as the biggest threat to the deal brokered by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France. Similar agreements have previously failed to defuse the almost one-year crisis that’s killed more than 5,400 people. The militants demanded that Ukrainian troops surrender the battleground town as the two sides traded blame for breaking the cease-fire hours after it began.
“We do believe that through peaceful means the settlement of the situation in the eastern regions is possible,” a monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a statement on Facebook. “We look for all parties to fully implement the package of measures, and for full compliance of the cease-fire.”
The midnight truce was “overall respected” in the first 12 hours, with violations recorded in Debaltseve, Raihorodka and Luhansk, according to the OSCE, which said its monitors were prevented from entering Debaltseve Sunday. A rebel official said a day earlier that the cease-fire won’t apply to the town and shooting there won’t be considered a breach of the agreement.
Russian-backed forces renewed artillery fire on residential buildings and infrastructure in Debaltseve on Monday and hit the town’s police station, the Donetsk regional police chief Vyacheslav Abroskin wrote on his Facebook page.
Ukrainian forces broke the cease-fire 27 times in the past day and shelled the town of Dokychaevsky and the city of Horlivka, rebel official Eduard Basurin said, according to the separatist-run DAN news service.
NATO is offering “practical support” to Ukraine in its military reform, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview with Russia’s Kommersant newspaper published Monday. The military alliance doesn’t have weapons to provide to Ukraine and any decision on sending arms is a matter for individual member states, he said, Kommersant reported.
“The Minsk accords were another step toward peace but everything depends on Russia and whether our western allies will be able to restrain Russia,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in an interview Sunday on television channel 1+1. “Peace can be reached and can be guaranteed only when Ukraine can defend itself.”
Ukraine, the U.S., the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization say Russia is supporting the separatists with hardware, cash and troops -- accusations the Kremlin denies. Russia says Ukraine is waging war on its own citizens and discriminates against Russian speakers, a majority in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Sunday discussed the implementation of the cease-fire by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their “common position” is that the truce should extend across the entire line of contact, including the area of Debaltseve, according to a statement issued by Poroshenko’s office.
The intensity of attacks picked up following an initial lull in the fighting after midnight. Ukrainian positions came under rebel shelling 32 times between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday, according to the Defense Ministry in Kiev.
In turn, separatist officials accused the Ukrainian army of violating the armistice and targeting areas near Debaltseve, forcing local forces to return fire, the rebel-run DAN news service reported.
The fate of Debaltseve was in dispute soon after all-night negotiations ended in the Belarus capital. As the accord was announced on Thursday by Putin in Minsk, the Russian president said Ukraine was denying rebel claims that thousands of government troops were encircled. In the hours before the truce, both sides were fighting in the area for control over the last remaining resupply road available to Ukraine.
“Debaltseve is ours,” Valeriy Chaly, deputy chief of the Ukrainian presidential administration, said in televised remarks Sunday. “The cease-fire must not have any exceptions.”
Debaltseve, a pocket of government-held territory inside areas controlled by separatists, has been a flashpoint for weeks and came under repeated attacks by artillery and tanks before the truce deadline, according to the National Security and Defense Council in Kiev.
The head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, has said that the cease-fire won’t extend to the area. All Ukrainian troops pinned down in Debaltseve must lay down their arms and abandon the town, Zakharchenko said Sunday in a statement carried by the rebel-run DAN news service.
U.S. intelligence and military officials remain convinced that even if the cease-fire takes hold, the separatist offensive will resume at some point and continue at least until the takeover of Debaltseve and Mariupol.
Debaltseve is a vital link between Donetsk and Luhansk, the officials said Saturday, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments. Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, is the last major obstacle to opening a land route between Russia and Crimea, which Putin’s government annexed in March.