Ukraine truce under threat as heavy fighting erupts15 september 2014, 10:07
Heavy fighting erupted around the rebel stronghold of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine on Sunday, piling further pressure on a precarious nine-day-old truce between the government and separatist fighters, AFP reports.
Large clouds of thick black smoke billowed over the industrial city as the boom of sustained shelling and the rattle of automatic gunfire rang out, AFP reporters witnessed.
Kiev accused the rebels of jeopardising the truce by intensifying attacks on government positions in eastern Ukraine, the scene of five months of deadly combat.
Sunday's fighting appeared to be concentrated near Donetsk airport where the Ukrainian military said it had driven back a major assault by insurgent fighters on Friday.
"The terrorist actions are threatening the realisation of the Ukrainian president's peace plan," said National Security and Defence Council spokesman Volodymyr Polyovy.
He also took aim at comments by two rebel leaders who both signed the 12-point truce deal in Minsk on September 5, but who declared on Sunday they were mere "observers" at the talks.
The ceasefire deal has largely calmed a conflict that has cost more than 2,700 lives and set off the worst crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War.
Rebels and government forces have since swapped dozens of captives under the accord, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has pledged to offer the eastern regions that form the economic backbone of Ukraine some limited self-rule.
'Breaking the rules'
But the insurgents on Sunday accused Kiev's forces of firing at them.
"From our side, nobody is shooting but they are breaking the rules, everybody in the world knows it," said a rebel commander defending a checkpoint near the village of Olenivka south of Donetsk.
The simmering crisis has exposed layers of mistrust between both the West and Moscow and between the largely Russian-speaking populations in the east of Ukraine and the pro-Western leaders in Kiev.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday of keeping Ukraine in a state of war to create a "frozen conflict" in Russia's backyard.
"He wants to eliminate Ukraine as an independent country," Yatsenyuk said.
The West has been acting to isolate Putin, who is seen as less predictable and more aggressive than at any point since his domination of Russia began 15 years ago, and in turn pledged greater support for the government in Kiev.
Poroshenko heads to Washington this week to meet President Barack Obama, seeking to secure a "special status" alliance with the United States as he steers Ukraine further out of Russia's orbit.
Obama has rejected direct military involvement but instead unveiled increasingly painful economic sanctions on Moscow that -- together with similar EU measures -- effectively lock Russia out of Western capital markets and hamstring its crucial oil industry.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Washington of "trying to use the crisis in Ukraine to break economic ties between the EU and Russia and force Europe to buy US gas at much higher prices".
The punitive measures and an accompanying East-West trade war have left Russia's economy facing an increasingly gloomy future and a possible recession this year but have seemingly failed to alter Putin's monumental popularity.
Badly needed aid
The truce halted a rebel counter-surge across the southeast last month with the alleged support of Russian paratroopers and heavy weaponry that turned the tide of the war against Ukrainian forces.
Putin has repeatedly denied any direct involvement in the conflict, although NATO and Kiev say at least 1,000 Russian soldiers remain on Ukrainian soil.
Russia on Saturday sent a 220-truck convoy it said was carrying aid to the residents of rebel-held Lugansk, who have been struggling without water and power for weeks.
"I don't know how, but somehow things will return to normal, it can't be bad all the time," said one resident Yulia as she carried a yellow plastic bag packed with basic supplies.
Ukraine -- which did not give permission for the convoy to cross -- had expressed fears the trucks may be carrying supplies for insurgents and bitterly protested a similar delivery last month.
On the domestic front, cracks emerged in Poroshenko's administration when a deputy foreign minister quit over a delay in the implementation of an EU trade deal, apparently under Russian pressure.
The deal -- part of a broader association agreement to be ratified on Tuesday -- was meant to revive Ukraine's economy by lifting EU trade barriers, but Russia said it feared it would see its own market flooded with cheaper EU goods.
by Joe SINCLAIR with Tanya WILLMER in Kiev