Ukraine: Rebels Using Cease-fire to Regroup

Ukraine’s military said on Sunday a cease-fire had been fully observed in eastern separatist territories overnight, but warned that pro-Russian rebels were using the truce to regroup for new attacks on government positions, especially around the port of Mariupol.

A drop in violence and moves by both sides to withdraw heavy weapons from the front line had raised hopes a shaky two-week-old cease-fire could hold.

“In order to mislead OSCE representatives, the rebels are moving military equipment from the front line … and bringing it back at night,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said.

“There are signs the enemy is preparing for further offensives,” he said, naming as major targets government-held Mariupol, a strategic port city, and Artemivsk, north of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

Industrial hub

Control of the industrial hub of Mariupol would help the rebels form a corridor to the Crimea peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine last year.

While there was no shelling in the night, rebels shelled government troop positions 34 times on Saturday, wounding eight Ukrainian soldiers, Lysenko said.

Kyiv’s security officials told the French news agency AFP there was no fire after midnight on Ukraine’s positions and no Ukrainian soldiers have been killed over the past 24 hours.

On the other side, rebels said Ukrainian forces had fired mortar rounds and rockets in the Donetsk area 26 times in the past 24 hours, according to separatist DAN press service.

Senior rebel commander Eduard Basurin said on Sunday separatists continued the process of withdrawing heavy weapons from the front line under the eye of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, DAN reported.

The OSCE, which is monitoring the implementation of the peace deal, said on Saturday it had monitored the pull back of rebel equipment in parts of the Donetsk region and would check daily to see if the weapons remained in the areas they had been pulled back to.

It said it had also observed the withdrawal of two convoys in Luhansk region, but separatists had “prohibited the special monitoring mission from following either of these convoys to their end-points.”

OSCE’s envoy to Ukraine, Heidi Tagliavini, told the U.N. Security Council Friday the current situation was at a «crossroads» where the risk of further escalation remained high despite «encouraging signs.»

Death toll

However, a relative quiet in eastern Ukraine has set in following a shaky European-brokered peace plan to end fighting that has killed at least 5,800 people since April.

Kyiv and its Western allies said the rebels are funded and armed by Moscow, and backed by Russian military units. Moscow denies aiding sympathizers in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, in Kyiv, colleagues mourned the death of photojournalist Sergiy Nikolayev from the Ukrainian daily Segodnya. He died after being struck by a mortar shell in Pisky, a village not far from Donetsk airport.

Nikolayev, 43, died of his injuries late Saturday.

Some material for this report came from AFP.