Kyiv and pro-Russian separatists have traded accusations over the shaky status of the six-day-old ceasefire. While hope for a prisoner trade remains, Kyiv has said Russian tanks and missile systems have entered Ukraine.
The Ukrainian military and pro-Russian rebels accused each other of launching strikes on Friday despite a ceasefire meant to be in effect since Sunday. Government troops reported that the rebels had attacked their positions 49 times in the past 24 hours, using rockets, artillery, and armored vehicles exactly one year after protests set the stage for the 2014 revolution.
"The number of attacks show the terrorists do not want to completely silence their guns," Ukrainian military spokesman Anatoly Stelmach said, adding that there had been some shelling in the district of Mariupol - a strategically valuable seaport the government fears will become the focus of the separatists' next offensive.
The rebels in turn accused the government of staging attacks in residential areas, particularly in the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, where one civilian woman was killed according to the rebel press service DAN.
The fiercest fighting since the truce came into effect was in and around the rail hub town of Debaltseve, with Ukrainian troops withdrawing from the town on Wednesday. However, a witness told Reuters news agency that he saw a tank firing from a separatist checkpoint near Debaltseve on Friday morning, indicating that the battle in this area had not completely stopped.
A Ukrainian military official also said on Friday that more than 20 Russian tanks and 10 missile systems along with busses of fighters crossed the Ukrainian border headed toward Novoazovsk, a rebel-held town near Mariupol.
In a more positive development, the French news service AFP reported Friday that the rebels agreed to start exchanging prisoners, a key point of the ceasefire signed last week in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. A rebel official for human rights, Daria Morozova, told Russian media that an initial exchange with the Ukrainian side would take place on Saturday.
The leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia held a telephone conference on Thursday to make a new effort to ensure the ceasefire holds. There has been no confirmation from either side about pulling back heavy weapons from the frontline, which was supposed to begin Tuesday and be completed by March 3.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is scheduled to give a speech marking one year since the "Maidan" protests ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia and has not made a public appearance in nearly a year.
es/sms (AFP, Reuters)