DONETSK, Ukraine — The near-constant barrage of artillery fire that has plagued this eastern rebel stronghold for months fell almost silent early Sunday morning after both sides issued orders to cease fire.
It wasn't immediately clear whether government forces or the Russian-backed rebels who run unrecognized separatist states in parts of the country's two easternmost provinces were observing the deal, hammered out on Thursday after marathon negotiations in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. Occasional artillery fire could still be heard in Donetsk, though it was considerably sparser than the loud shelling heard throughout Saturday in the run-up to the midnight deadline.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, chairing a general staff meeting broadcast live on television, said that Ukraine would not hesitate to fight back if the rebels violated the ceasefire. "If we are slapped on one cheek, we will not turn the other," he said. The self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics also issued statements ordering troops to cease fire. Rebels in Luhansk said they would not return fire even if provoked because "the people of the Luhansk People's Republic have grown tired of war."
Intense fighting had raged at several flashpoints since the ceasefire was agreed. Shells landed in downtown Donetsk for the first time in the entire conflict on Saturday afternoon, killing three and injuring a further 12. A BuzzFeed News photographer witnessed constant artillery barrages as rebels jockeyed for position near the key town of Debaltseve. The government-held town of Artemivsk was also hit by shelling, though there were no casualties, Reuters reported.
The uptick in violence led both sides to cast doubt on whether the ceasefire would even take effect at all. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko threatened to introduce martial law in all of Ukraine if the violence did not stop. Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the Donetsk People's Republic, told reporters that he had no intention of honoring several points in the memorandum he signed in Minsk.
Ukrainian officials said that rebels, aided by the Russian regular army, were heavily bombarding the strategically important railway junction of Debaltseve. The town, located in a pocket between the two rebel republics, has become a major point of contention in recent weeks as Ukrainian soldiers attempt to stop Russian-backed rebels from encircling it.
The U.S. also accused Russia of last-minute efforts to support the rebels, releasing photos Saturday said to show Russian military systems in eastern Ukraine.
The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, tweeted the grayscale images showing tracks in the snow from alleged air defense systems, as well as plumes of smoke from alleged Russian rocket launchers.
Zakharchenko said that the rebels would not cease firing on Debaltseve and would not allow the Ukrainian troops there to escape.
Poroshenko denied rebels' claims to have surrounded it and said Ukraine could supply the several thousand troops there enough to defend it.
Earlier on Saturday, Poroshenko spoke with U.S. President Barack Obama, who expressed "deep concern about the ongoing violence, particularly in and around Debaltseve," the White House said. Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin both also spoke with the leaders of Germany and France, who brokered the Minsk talks, and agreed to continue discussions in the coming days.
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
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