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UN Official Fears Shaky Ukraine Cease-fire Will Not Hold

  • Lisa Schlein

A woman accompanies her child to be evacuated from Avdiivka to Sviatohirsk, a town about 140 kilometers (88 miles) away and far from the conflict front line, in eastern Ukraine, Feb. 5, 2017. A sharp escalation in fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed rebels in the previous week had killed at least 33 people, centering on Avdiivka, a government-held town just north of rebel-controlled Donetsk.

A senior U.N. official said Tuesday that he feared the fragile cease-fire between the Ukrainian government and Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine would not hold.

Neal Walker, the U.N. resident coordinator and humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, said that although calm had returned, the situation in eastern Ukraine remained very serious. The rebels' renewed siege of the airport at Donetsk, which began January 21, lasted until February 3. Walker said the fighting between January 29 and February 3 was extremely intense.

Walker said there were more than 40,000 violations of the cease-fire during a 10-day period, which is more violations than normally would occur during a whole month.

This was not a simple exchange of fire, he added; it was an engagement of men in direct combat and that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported the distance separating the rebels and government had narrowed considerably.

More heavy weapons

"You also have an increased presence of heavy weapons, directly in violation of the Minsk accords," Walker said. "So in this situation, it is, of course, very tense and it is very easy to imagine that the fighting could easily scale up again, even if now we have a slight return to a lull. And we think that this is good, but we are not confident that it will hold."

Walker said the United Nations supported the OSCE's call for the parties to respect the cease-fire and the terms of the Minsk agreement. He noted that compliance would require the withdrawal of heavy weapons and re-creation of safe zones between the troops.

Since the conflict began nearly three years ago, the United Nations said, about 10,000 people have been killed and more than 20,000 have been wounded.

Walker described those numbers as very conservative estimates. He added that deaths and injuries were on the rise again and would continue to climb if fighting continued and the warring parties did not honor the Minsk cease-fire agreement.

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