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Fighting Puts E. Ukraine Truce in Jeopardy

  • VOA News

Clashes erupted in eastern Ukraine Sunday, throwing into question a cease-fire agreement signed Friday by the rebels and Kyiv government.

At least two houses were on fire in Spartak, a rural village just north of Donetsk and adjacent to the airport. The homes were reportedly hit by fire as both rebels and the Kyiv government accused the other of breaching the cease-fire.

Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council earlier Sunday said rebels in Donetsk appeared to have tried to attack the airport, which government forces have held since May.

Also, renewed shelling overnight in the port city of Mariupol is said to have killed a woman and injured three other people. If confirmed, the woman would be the first civilian killed since a truce was declared.

The latest cease-fire was negotiated at talks in Belarus on Friday.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he spoke Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin by telephone and the two agreed the truce was generally being honored at that time. Ukraine and NATO accuse Moscow of providing direct help to separatists, including by means of sending troops and military hardware. Russia denies the charges even though rebel leaders say they have been helped by Russian soldiers who have used their vacation time to battle Ukrainian troops on Ukrainian soil.

Arms to Ukraine

A senior aide to Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko said on Sunday that Kyiv had reached agreement during the NATO summit in Wales on the provision of weapons and military advisers from five member states of the alliance.

However, four of the five swiftly denied making any such pledge.

Yuri Lutsenko posted remarks on his Facebook page. He gave no further details and it was not immediately possible to confirm his statement, Reuters reported. Poroshenko, whose armed forces are battling pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, attended the two-day summit in Wales that ended on Friday.

“At the NATO summit agreements were reached on the provision of military advisers and supplies of modern armaments from the United States, France, Italy, Poland and Norway,” Poroshenko aide Yuri Lutsenko said on his Facebook page.

Lutsenko gave no further details. He may have made his comment for domestic political reasons to highlight the degree of NATO commitment to Ukraine and to its pro-Western president.

NATO officials have said the alliance will not send weapons to Ukraine, which is not a member state, but they have also said individual allies may choose to do so.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied that the United States had made such a pledge. The official told Reuters, "No U.S. offer of lethal assistance has been made to Ukraine."

Asked about Lutsenko's comments, defense ministry officials in Italy, Poland and Norway also denied plans to provide arms.

In France, an aide at the Elysee palace declined to comment.

Russia is fiercely opposed to closer ties between Ukraine and the NATO alliance.

NATO did announce plans to boost its military presence in Eastern Europe and put tougher a new rapid reaction force in direct response to the situation in Ukraine.

Belarus negotiations

The current cease-fire in Ukraine was approved at talks in Belarus by envoys from the Kyiv government, the separatist movement, Moscow and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The truce was to include a withdrawal of all heavy weapons from eastern Ukraine, an exchange of all captured soldiers and rebels, and more autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, swaths of which are controlled by the separatists.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by telephone Saturday and the two agreed that the truce was generally being honored at that time.

The cease-fire had appeared to be holding for much of the day on Saturday, but shelling started late at night.

Ukraine and NATO accuse Moscow of providing direct help to separatists, a claim Russia has repeatedly denied.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking Sunday in Georgia, characterized Putin's recent actions as "dangerous and irresponsible."

Amnesty International said Sunday the situation on the ground in Ukraine remains "fraught with danger," and called on all parties to "stop violations of the laws of war."

Amnesty Secretary-General Salil Shetty said, "All sides in this conflict have shown disregard for civilian lives and are blatantly violating their international obligations."

Amnesty also accused both the rebels and Ukrainian militia of war crimes, and it published satellite images it said showed a build-up of Russian armor and artillery in eastern Ukraine.

“Our evidence shows that Russia is fuelling the conflict, both through direct interference and by supporting the separatists in the east. Russia must stop the steady flow of weapons and other support to an insurgent force heavily implicated in gross human rights violations,” Shetty said in a statement.

Moscow denies dispatching forces or arming the rebels despite what NATO says is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Possible new sanctions

As regional tensions continued to simmer Saturday, Russia — accused by the West of supporting the rebellion — vowed to retaliate if the European Union imposes a new round of economic sanctions next week.

The new sanctions were given preliminary approval Friday night and could be implemented as early as Monday. The Associated Press, citing an unnamed EU diplomat, said the new measures would target Russia's access to capital markets and trade in arms and defense technology, dual-use goods and sensitive technologies.

"There will undoubtedly be a reaction from our side" if additional sanctions are taken, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, without specifying what the reaction might be.

But Western governments have in recent weeks imposed several rounds of economic penalties on Moscow for its widely perceived role in the rebellion, and Moscow has retaliated with sanctions of its own.

The EU "would do better to work on supporting the economic revival" of eastern Ukraine, the ministry said.

Also Saturday, NATO forces launched a major military training exercise 250 kilometers from the Russian border, in what is being described as a practical demonstration of support for Baltic states facing an assertive Russia.

The maneuvers, which are set to end Monday, near the Latvian capital, Riga, involved aircraft, vehicles and about 500 U.S., Canadian and Italian paratroopers in a joint exercise at an airbase southeast of the city.

VOA's Henry Ridgewell contributed to this report from London. Some material for this report comes from Reuters, AFP and AP.

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