Ukraine's President Visits Frontline City Amid 'Shaky' Ceasefire

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko greets workers during his visit to the Ilich Iron and Steel Works in the southern coastal town of Mariupol September 8, 2014. Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visited the eastern port of Mariupol on Monday and promised to deal a 'crushing defeat' to pro-Russian rebels massed on the edge of town if they tried to advance in violation of a ceasefire agreement.

"I have ordered (the military) to secure the defense of Mariupol with howitzers, multiple rocket launchers, tanks, anti-tank weapons and air cover," Poroshenko told a crowd of steel workers in the port on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border.

The ceasefire, which took effect on Friday evening, is part of a peace plan intended to end a five-month conflict the United Nations' human rights envoy said had killed more than 3,000 people. It has also caused the sharpest confrontation between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

The truce was largely holding on Monday, though each side accused the other of sporadic shelling, including in Mariupol, a city of about half a million, shortly after the president's arrival there.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is monitoring the ceasefire, urged the two sides to seek a political "breakthrough", though they remain far apart on the future of eastern Ukraine, home to much of the country's heavy industry. The rebels refuse to accept rule from Kiev.

"Mariupol was, is and will be Ukrainian," Poroshenko declared.

"The enemy will suffer a crushing defeat," said Poroshenko, who agreed to the ceasefire and a wider peace plan after the rebels - backed, Kiev says, by Russian firepower - made sweeping battlefield gains. Russia denies involvement.

In the earlier days of the uprising, rebels seized partial control of Mariupol, occupying some buildings including a police station. Some offices were badly damaged or burnt down. Since the rebels were driven out by Ukrainian forces, sentiment appears to have swung more in favor of the government.

Residents built a fortification around the town, whose port is vital for Ukraine's steel exports, and set up a militia. Shops have reopened and Ukrainian flags are widely visible.

Mariupol was the scene of fierce fighting before the ceasefire, when rebels advanced in an attempt to retake it, and also saw the most serious violation of the ceasefire on Saturday night when government forces there came under artillery attack.

A woman was killed and four people injured in that shelling.

The cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, strongholds of the rebellion, remain in rebel hands.

Poroshenko, who received a warm welcome in Mariupol, said the rebels had so far handed over about 1,200 prisoners-of-war to the Ukrainian side under the terms of the ceasefire accord.

However, OSCE chair Switzerland described the ceasefire as "shaky" and said the next few days would be crucial.

Swiss President Didier Burkhalter said the ceasefire alone was not sufficient, adding: "The different actors must really push for a (political) breakthrough".


Earlier, Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told a news briefing in Kiev that Ukrainian forces were observing the ceasefire except in self-defense and had remained in their positions since Friday evening.

In rebel-held Donetsk, eastern Ukraine's industrial hub, 'prime minister' Alexander Zakharchenko of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic fired similar accusations against the Ukrainian side, adding: "We have shown the whole world we are not terrorists, we are ready for talks and we can listen."

Kiev and its Western backers accuse Russia of sending troops across the border and arming the rebels, charges Moscow denies.

Lysenko said on Monday Ukraine had seen no sign of Russian troop movements over the border in the past 24 hours.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow would respond to any new Western economic sanctions imposed over its role in Ukraine, adding it might target flights over Russia.

The European Union put Russia's top oil producers and pipeline operators Rosneft, Transneft and Gazprom Neft on its list of Russian state-owned firms that will not be allowed to raise capital or borrow on European markets, an EU diplomat said.

EU sanctions, however, did not encompass the gas sector and in particular state-owned Gazprom, the world's biggest gas producer which is also the biggest gas supplier to Europe.

In general, the EU sanctions on raising money in the EU for Russian companies will apply to firms that have turnover of more than 1 trillion rubles($26.95 billion) and half of that is generated from the sale or transport of oil, the diplomat said.

The sanctions will enter into force after being published in the official journal of the EU, which could happen at midnight.


In Donetsk, authorities declared Monday a public holiday to mark the expulsion of "fascists" from the heavily industrialized, mainly Russian-speaking Donbass region.

The separatists have used the word "fascist" to denote the central government in Kiev since Poroshenko's predecessor Viktor Yanukovich, who came from eastern Ukraine and was backed by Mosocw, fled to Russia in February after months of anti-government protests in the Ukrainian capital.

On Monday afternoon a Reuters reporter heard renewed mortar fire near to the government-held airport north of Donetsk.

Most residents of Donetsk blame Kiev for the conflict, after months of heavy bombardment of the city by government forces, but some had harsh words also for the separatists and few expected the current ceasefire to last.

"The ceasefire is not holding, that's clear from just the few days I have been back in the city," said Yevgenia, who has taken refuge with relatives in western Ukraine.

"We came back for warm clothes and are leaving right away. It's so sad to see the city empty, deserted, armed people with cars crossing at red traffic lights, kidnapping people or taking away their cars. What good can they build here?"