The Ukrainian army has reported its first casualties after two days in which no fatalities were reported. President Petro Poroshenko has again warned of an ongoing military threat "from the east."
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kyiv on Friday that despite a ceasefire that finally appeared to have taken hold, three army soldiers had been killed in the past 24 hours.
"Over the past day, three Ukrainian soldiers died and seven were wounded," Col. Lysenko said, before adding that fighting against pro-Russia separatists had halted along most of the frontline. However, he also said that there were still clashes in villages around the heavily damaged airport in Donetsk.
"Rebels attacked using artillery, mortars and tanks and tried to storm our positions," Lysenko said. "All the attacks were beaten back."
The news of the fresh casualties came a day after Kyiv said it had started to withdraw its heavy weapons from the front line, as called for in a ceasefire agreed in the Minsk accord earlier this month. Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Serhiy Galushko said in televised comments on Friday that the withdrawal of heavy weapons was continuing, although the army remained on a high state of alert amid isolated attacks by the rebels.
The separatists have also claimed that they were pulling back their heavy weapons as part of a plan to establish a buffer zone between the two parties to the conflict.
The ceasefire is meant to be verified by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but they have said that while they have seen movement of weapons on both sides, they could not yet confirm the extent of the withdrawal on either side.
Threat from east to 'unfortunately remain'
Despite an apparent decrease in fighting in eastern Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko warned in a speech at a military academy on Friday that he expected Russia, which Kyiv and the West have accused of supporting the separatists, to be an ongoing challenge.
"Even under the most optimistic scenario ... the military threat from the east would unfortunately remain," Poroshenko said without mentioning Russia by name.
He also described the Ukrainian troop withdrawal as "just a trial run," adding that should clashes resume in earnest, "our troops are at all times prepared to return equipment to their former positions and quickly fend off the enemy."
pfd/sms (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)