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Ukraine ceasefire began at midnight - but two civilians have already been killed

An elderly man and woman were killed in Popasna.

Ukraine A paramedic bandages the head of a wounded man after shelling between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian government forces in Donetsk, Ukraine, yesterday Source: AP/Press Association Images

TWO CIVILIANS WERE killed by rockets fired by rebels shortly after the start of a ceasefire in east Ukraine today, a pro-Kiev official said, but firing halted along most of the frontline.

An elderly man and woman died after Grad missile fire hit the town of Popasna in the Lugansk region some 20 minutes after a truce came into force at midnight (10pm GMT), local governor Gennadiy Moskal said.

Ukraine’s army said firing had died down across most of the conflict zone and only isolated shooting was reported.

Ukraine A firefighter tries to extinguish a building on fire after shelling between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government in residential area of the town of Artemivsk, Ukraine, yesterday Source: AP/Press Association Images

Ceasefire begins

Earlier, reports said that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered troops to abide by the truce, in line with a deal reached in Minsk earlier this week with the leaders of Russia, Germany and France.

But in comments broadcast live on television, Poroshenko added that the peace process was already “threatened” by pro-Russian separatists who have surrounded Ukrainian forces in the battleground town of Debaltseve.

Ukraine Source: AP/Press Association Images

Meanwhile US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to underscore “the importance of full implementation” of peace agreements, including the ceasefire.

Kerry also “expressed concern about the fierce fighting around Debaltseve, and efforts by Russia and the separatists to cut off the town in advance of the ceasefire,” a senior State Department official said.

Ukraine Source: AP/Press Association Images

In the hours before the ceasefire deadline, Kiev loyalist and regional police chief Vyacheslav Abroskin said constant artillery bombardments were razing Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub where Ukrainian forces were hanging on.

Ukraine’s Azov volunteer battalion also reported fierce clashes just to the east of the vital government-held port city of Mariupol and said that the village of Shyrokyne had been “practically destroyed” by shelling.

Deal in doubt?

Ukraine Russian-backed separatists wait for their transport, preparing to leave towards the frontline, in the village of Vergulivka Source: AP/Press Association Images

The ceasefire is the first test of the commitment by Kiev and pro-Russian separatists to the peace plan signed on Thursday after marathon talks between Poroshenko, Russian leader Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.

Saturday’s surge in fighting cast doubt on the deal but Putin was said to have re-affirmed his commitment to the ceasefire in a phone call with Merkel and Hollande.

“Putin said the rebels were ready for the ceasefire,” the French presidency said in a statement.

Ukraine Source: AP/Press Association Images

Donetsk rebel chief Alexander Zakharchenko — viewed by the West as a Russian puppet — earlier ordered his fighters to respect the truce but to ward off any attacks “with all force and means”.

The fragility of the truce was further highlighted when Zakharchenko warned that any attempts by encircled Ukraine troops to escape Debaltseve after the ceasefire will be viewed as an act of aggression.

The UN Security Council is expected to meet today for an emergency session to shore up the Ukraine peace deal, diplomats said.

Ukraine Newly mobilized Ukrainian soldiers go to position during military drills in base Desna Source: AP/Press Association Images

 Last push before truce

US President Barack Obama called his Ukrainian counterpart yesterday to express his “deep concern” over the spiralling violence ahead of the midnight deadline.

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“Both leaders stressed the importance of establishing a lasting peace that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and unity,” the White House said in a statement.

Obama has warned he could start arms supplies to Ukraine if the new peace deal collapses.

The fragile accord is seen as the best hope of ending the conflict, which has killed at least 5,480 people and ratcheted up East-West tensions to levels not seen since the Cold War, but scepticism remains high after the previous collapse of a similar peace plan.

Ukraine Women run into a shelter as shelling between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces takes place in residential area of the town of Artemivsk, Ukraine, Source: AP/Press Association Images

In the run-up to the ceasefire, the United States said the Russian military had deployed large amounts of artillery and multiple rocket launcher systems and was using them to shell Ukrainian positions.

Ukrainian security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said rebels backed up by regular Russian troops were trying to “achieve important tactical goals to extend their territory” before the ceasefire.

 Roadmap to peace

Ukraine Ukrainian soldiers Source: AP/Press Association Images

The new Minsk agreement is fraught with potential pitfalls.

  • Both sides have to begin withdrawing heavy weapons from the front line within two days of the start of the ceasefire to establish a buffer zone between 50 and 140 kilometres wide, depending on the range of the weapons.
  • Under the Minsk agreement, Kiev will also begin retaking control over the approximately 400-kilometre stretch of Russia’s border with rebel-held Ukraine, but only after local elections are held.

The border is entirely under Russian and rebel control and is used, according to Kiev, as a conduit for separatist supplies. Separatist-held territories will be granted a degree of autonomy to be established through talks.

- © AFP, 2015

Read: Why the peace deal between Ukraine and Russia today is so important>

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