MOSCOW – Separatist rebels and government troops both reported violations of a cease-fire declared in eastern Ukraine at midnight on Wednesday as French and German foreign ministers were visiting the country in a bid to shore up a crumbling peace agreement.
Rebels on Tuesday declared a unilateral cease-fire, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the following day Ukraine had also agreed to observe the truce.
Russian state television on Thursday quoted rebel officials as saying their forces came under mortar fire earlier that day. Ukrainian military spokesman Oleksander Motuzyanik said three servicemen had been wounded and that rebels violated the cease-fire six times.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatist rebels and Ukrainian government troops has killed more than 9,600 people since it erupted in April 2014, according to the United Nations. The February 2015 Minsk agreement, which was brokered by France and Germany, helped end large-scale battles, but smaller clashes have continued to claim lives and a political settlement has stalled.
A day after meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev, Steinmeier and French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault traveled to Ukraine’s east Thursday.
Speaking outside the city of Slavyansk, taken by the Ukrainian troops after fierce battles in 2014, Steinmeier voiced hope that the truce would hold and help open the way for progress on political aspects of the Minsk agreement.
“It must be our aim to turn the cease-fire that we and above all people here are seeing into a lasting truce,” he said.
The Minsk deal envisaged that Ukraine only regains control of the rebellious region’s border with Russia after granting them special status, holding local elections there and offering amnesty to the rebels.
That provision of the Minsk deal has drawn strong criticism from Ukrainian nationalists, and Poroshenko has been cautious to push it through parliament fearing public anger.
Ukraine has accused Russia of failing to withdraw its troops and weapons from the east, but Moscow has denied having any presence there. The Kremlin, in turn, has argued that Ukraine has failed to meet its end of the Minsk deal by not providing autonomy for the eastern regions and calling elections there.
“We must see that we move forward on the other questions — on the amnesty law, on the special status law, on the local election law,” Steinmeier said. “We in any case will try in these next days and weeks to bring to a solution the existing differences between Russia and Ukraine in particular.”
Steinmeier also hailed members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s monitoring mission in the east for helping reduce tensions.
“We must make even greater efforts in the near future so that the exchange of prisoners happens, about which there has been a lot of talk but which still isn’t really moving ahead,” Steinmeier added. “We must ensure that children can go to school and many other things.”
He pointed to the destroyed bridge outside Slavyansk as “a symbol of the extent to which the connections between central Ukraine and eastern Ukraine have been lost,” adding that we are “dedicating ourselves to rebuilding this bridge as a symbol that the lifelines must not be lost.”