UNITED NATIONS - Violations of a tense cease-fire in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv and Russian-backed rebels have reached "alarming numbers" not seen in months, international monitors told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday.
"Violence in eastern Ukraine is once again reaching a peak," warned Ertugrul Apakan, the chief monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.
He said that so far in April, his monitors have registered the highest number of cease-fire violations since August 2015, while many heavy weapons that were previously at permanent storage sites and holding areas are missing and have turned up in use at the line of contact.
"We need a cessation of hostilities and a full and sustainable cease-fire," Apakan told council members.
He and Martin Sajdik, the special representative of the OSCE chairperson-in-office in Ukraine and in the Trilateral Contact Group, said the sides must fully respect the cease-fire ahead of the Orthodox Easter holiday, which will culminate this Sunday.
"Secure conditions must be created for the people living in proximity to the hostilities and those who will cross the contact line during the upcoming holidays," Sajdik said. Both diplomats briefed the council via a video link from Kyiv.
"Easter is one thing which continues to unite us and the Ukrainians — Russians and Ukrainians — so I hope it is going to be respected," Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters after the meeting regarding the truce.
"The cease-fire is the number one priority in the whole Minsk process," said Ukraine's Deputy Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko, referring to the February 2015 agreement that is aimed at resolving the conflict.
"If we can start with that [cease-fire], we'll be able to proceed to the withdrawal of forces, resolving all the problems — the demining, the humanitarian problems, everything all the way down to political resolution," Prystaiko added.
Thousands of violations
"The word ‘cease-fire’ is losing its meaning in eastern Ukraine," said British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft.
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said that on April 14, the monitors recorded more than 4,000 violations — 500 of them using prohibited heavy weapons.
"This cycle of escalation must stop," Power added.
Each side blames the other for the violations.
Council members urged both sides to implement the Minsk Agreement and its package of measures — including the cease-fire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons, the release of hostages and prisoners, and talks that would lead to local elections.
Ukraine began a two-year term on the Security Council in January. Thursday was the first time this year that its delegation asked for a discussion of the situation.