MINSK, Belarus (AP) — The Ukrainian president declared a cease-fire Friday to end nearly five months of fighting in the nation’s east after his representatives reached a deal with the Russian-backed rebels at peace talks.
President Petro Poroshenko said he ordered government forces to stop hostilities at 1500 GMT (11 a.m. EDT) following a protocol signed by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“I count on this agreement, including the ceasing of fire and the freeing of hostages, to be precisely observed,” Poroshenko said in a statement.
Heidi Tagliavini of the OSCE told reporters the deal reached at talks in the Belarusian capital of Minsk consisted of 12 points but she did not immediately spell them out before heading back into the talks.
“The cease-fire will allow us to save not only civilians lives, but also the lives of the people who took up arms in order to defend their land and ideals,” said Alexander Zakharchenko, the rebel leader from the Donetsk region.
But Igor Plotnitsky, the insurgent leader for the Luhansk region, told reporters “this doesn’t mean that our course for secession is over” — a statement that reflected deep divisions which threaten to derail peace efforts.
Since mid-April, Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting government troops in eastern Ukraine in a conflict the U.N. estimates has killed nearly 2,600 people. A NATO military officer told The Associated Press on Thursday that the ranks of Russian soldiers directly involved in the conflict have grown.
But as late as Friday morning, Associated Press reporters heard heavy shelling north and east of the key southeastern port of Mariupol. The city of 500,000 lies on the Sea of Azov, between Russia to the east and the Crimean Peninsula to the west, which Russia annexed in March. The shelling appeared to indicate that rebels had partially surrounded the area and were probing its defenses.
The seizure of Mariupol would give the rebels a strong foothold on the Sea of Azov and raise the threat that they carve out a land corridor between Russia and Crimea. If that happens, Ukraine would lose another huge chunk of its coast and access to the rich hydrocarbon resources the Sea of Azov is believed to hold. Ukraine ready lost about half its coastline, several major ports and untold billions in Black Sea mineral rights with Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
“Mariupol is a strategic point. If we lose it then we could lose the entire coastline, the whole south of Ukraine,” said Tatyana Chronovil, a prominent Ukrainian activist at a mustering point for the volunteer Azov Battalion on the eastern edge of the city.
The rebel offensive in the southeast follows two weeks of gains that have turned the tide of the war against Ukrainian forces, who until recently had appeared close to crushing the five-month rebellion. Ukraine, NATO and the West say the rebel counterattack has been spearheaded by regular Russian army units, a charge the Kremlin has denied.
Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s national security council in Kiev, said seven servicemen had been killed over the past day, bringing the Ukrainian forces’ death toll to 846.
Leonard reported from Mariupol, Ukraine. John-Thor Dahlburg in Newport, Wales and Jim Heintz from Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to the story.
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