Ukraine Death Toll Edges Up Despite Ceasefire

ukraine
Armed pro-Russian separatists escort a column of Ukrainian prisoners of war (L) as they walk across central Donetsk August 24, 2014. Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Four Ukrainian servicemen have been killed since the start of a ceasefire between government forces and pro-Russian separatists last Friday in eastern Ukraine, a defense ministry official was quoted on Tuesday as saying.

The ceasefire is part of a peace plan intended to end a five-month-old conflict the United Nations says has killed more than 3,000 people. It has also caused the sharpest confrontation between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

The ceasefire largely held overnight into Tuesday despite sporadic violations, including in rebel-held Donetsk, the region's largest city, where government forces hold the airport. A woman was wounded in Donetsk overnight, officials said.

The head of the defense ministry's military-medical department in Kiev, Vitaly Andronaty, said four servicemen had been killed and 29 injured since Friday evening, Interfax news agency reported.

It was the first official confirmation of military deaths since the ceasefire began.

In a separate statement, the press center of the Ukrainian military's "Anti-Terrorist Operation" said the armed forces had suffered no casualties overnight into Tuesday.

At the weekend, one woman was killed and at least four other civilians were wounded when government forces came under heavy shelling near the port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.

Both sides say they are observing the ceasefire and blame each other for any violations.

"Russian troops and terrorists are continuing their brazen violations of the conditions of the ceasefire, shooting at the positions of the Ukrainian forces, including with heavy weaponry," defense analyst Dmytro Tymchuk, who has close ties to the Ukrainian military, said in a statement on Tuesday.

HOPING FOR PEACE

The other major flashpoint, Mariupol, was quiet on Tuesday, a day after President Petro Poroshenko paid a brief visit to show solidarity with the strategic port that the pro-Russian rebels appeared intent on capturing before the ceasefire.

Poroshenko told cheering residents on Monday he had ordered reinforcements to the city and promised to deal a "crushing defeat" on the rebels massed nearby if they tried to advance again in violation of the ceasefire deal.

"After that bombardment (on Saturday night) we have had two quiet days and I am hoping it will stay that way. This war is taking its toll on everyone and I am hoping this will end soon," Evgeny, a 22-year-old student, told Reuters on Tuesday.

Not everybody was impressed by Poroshenko's visit to Mariupol, which is important for Ukraine's steel exports but lies in the largely Russian-speaking region of Donetsk where many people blame Kiev, not the rebels, for the conflict.

"Poroshenko came yesterday to scare people, to talk about cannons and rockets. To me Ukraine is ready to break the ceasefire and keep on shooting its own citizens, Kiev will be responsible if this town is destroyed," said pensioner Leonid.

Rebel leader Andrei Purgin told Interfax the rebels expected an exchange of 36 prisoners of war between the two sides on Tuesday. The exchange of POWs is one of the conditions of the peace plan agreed last Friday by envoys in Minsk.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is monitoring the ceasefire, has urged the two sides to begin serious talks on a political settlement for eastern Ukraine but they remain far apart.

Purgin said the rebels continued to insist on independence for their self-proclaimed "people's republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kiev says they must stay within Ukraine.

Kiev and its Western backers accuse Russia of sending troops and arms across the border in support of the rebels.Moscow denies the charges.