The battlefields of eastern Ukraine fell mostly silent Sunday as a shaky cease-fire went into effect, but both sides in the fight between Russia-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government accused the other of sporadic small arms and mortar fire.
“It is the first day in recent weeks that no reports came of artillery or missile fire along the entire front line in the region,” Vyacheslav Abroskin, head of the Donetsk region police, said in a phone interview with The Times.
However, he added: “Our police and army checkpoints were shot at many times during the day, especially in Debaltseve and Shirokine. We responded with fire.”
Several civilians were wounded in the crossfire, Abroskin said. Neither side reported on casualties among their fighters.
A conflict monitoring mission run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported on its website that the truce was holding on the whole but complained that pro-Russia separatists prevented monitors from visiting the contested Debaltseve area Sunday. The mission observed several exchanges of fire in the region during the day.
Pro-Russia separatists opened fire on Ukrainian government troops positions about 60 times on Sunday after the ceasefire started, Ukraine's Anti-Terrorist Operation unit reported on its Facebook page.
The separatists acknowledged having fired, but said their actions were defensive.
“We only fired near Debaltseve and in response to the enemy fire,” Eduard Basurin, the chief political officer of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic's armed forces, said in a phone interview. “Over two weeks ago we entrapped several thousand Kiev troops in Debaltseve and our condition is simple: They have to give up arms and hardware before we can let them out.”
Ukrainian troops tried to break out of the encirclement, opening small arms and mortar fire at the separatists, who repelled the attack, Basurin said.
He denied that the OSCE monitoring mission had attempted to examine the situation in Debaltseve on Sunday. “We would of course have let them do what they wanted if they were here,” Basurin said.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was engaged in a flurry of telephone talks during the day with French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the four guarantors of the peace deal reached in Minsk on Thursday, according to a statement posted on the presidential website.
The 10-month conflict in eastern Ukraine, which started in April after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, has claimed more than 5,350 lives and displaced more than a million people, according to recent U.N. reports.
Special correspondent Butenko reported from Kiev and Times staff writer Loiko from Moscow.