Leaders of Ukraine, Russia Say Ceasefire Holding, More Steps Needed

Ukraine tank
Ukrainian soldiers inspect a damaged tank on the outskirts of the southern coastal town of Mariupol, September 6, 2014. Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

The presidents of Russia and Ukraine said on Saturday that a ceasefire between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists was holding up fairly well and they discussed urgent humanitarian aid for the shattered region.

Residents and combatants in eastern Ukraine welcomed the respite in a five-month conflict that has killed at least 2,600 people but said they did not expect it to last. They also each accused the enemy of using the truce to rebuild their forces.

"The two heads of state stated that overall the ceasefire was being implemented ... (and) discussed steps to achieve a permanent ceasefire," Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko said in a statement after his telephone call with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

The presidents also expressed support for the full involvement of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a rights watchdog, in monitoring the ceasefire.

The Kremlin later put out a similar statement on the talks.

Envoys of Ukraine, Russia, the separatist leadership and the OSCE approved the ceasefire in Minsk on Friday as part of a peace roadmap that also includes an exchange of prisoners of war and establishing a humanitarian corridor for refugees and aid.

Poroshenko agreed to the ceasefire after Ukraine accused Russia of sending troops and arms onto its territory in support of the separatists, who had suffered big losses over the summer. Moscow denies sending troops or arming the rebels.

In the days before the ceasefire, fighting had been fierce in two hotspots - in rebel-held Donetsk, the region's industrial hub, and also near the port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, where government forces were trying to repel a major rebel offensive backed - Kiev says - by Russian troops.

Both cities were quiet on Saturday, despite some isolated shelling overnight near Donetsk's airport, which remains in government hands. Mortar rounds were also fired at regular intervals through Saturday in the vicinity of the airport.

"The ceasefire is looking good for now but we know they (the Ukrainian side) are only using it to bring in more forces here and ammunition and then to hit us with renewed strength," said one rebel commander in Donetsk known by his nickname Montana.


Andriy Lysenko, the spokesman of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, said Kiev wanted the exchange of POWs to take place "as fast as possible" but gave no time frame. He said the rebels were holding more than 200 Ukrainians captive.

Earlier, the prime minister of the rebels' self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic", Alexander Zakharchenko, told Russian news agencies his side would hand over its POWs to Ukraine on Saturday but that had not happened by early evening.

Poroshenko spent Thursday and Friday at a NATO summit in Wales at which U.S. President Barack Obama and other leaders urged Putin to pull its forces out of Ukraine. NATO also approved wide-ranging plans to boost its defenses in eastern Europe in response to the Ukraine crisis.

The Ukraine conflict has revived talk of a new Cold War as the West accuses Putin of deliberately destabilizing the former Soviet republic. Putin says he is defending the interests of ethnic Russians facing discrimination and oppression.

The Kremlin leader came under fire on Saturday from another source. Patriarch Filaret, head of Ukraine's Kiev-based Orthodox Church, said Putin had fallen under Satan's spell and bore personal responsibility for all the bloodshed.

Filaret, whose church broke from the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union and the advent of an independent Ukraine, compared Putin, a baptized Orthodox Christian, to Cain, who in the Bible killed his brother Abel.

The European Union announced new economic sanctions against Russia late on Friday over its role inUkraine but said they could be suspended if Moscow withdraws its troops and observes the conditions of the ceasefire.

Russia's foreign ministry responded angrily on Saturday to the measures, pledging unspecified "reaction" if they were implemented. Moscow responded to a previous round of U.S. and EU sanctions by banning most Western food imports.

In eastern Ukraine, despite the ceasefire, few expected the crisis to end anytime soon.

"This is no ceasefire but a theater," said Donetsk resident Ksenia. "This war will go on for five to nine years. Slavs are killing Slavs, there can be nothing worse than that."