KIEV/DONETSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - Three Ukrainian servicemen were killed and nine wounded as pro-Russian rebels shelled government positions despite a ceasefire deal, the military said on Tuesday, announcing Kiev’s highest casualty toll in several days.
The losses underscore the fragility of a two-week-old ceasefire agreement which Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called the last chance for peace between Kiev and the separatists he says are being armed by Russia.
After the separatists initially ignored the ceasefire to launch one of the biggest offensives of the war, fighting finally slowed down dramatically last week. In recent days both sides have been withdrawing artillery from the front line, the next stage in a peace agreement brokered by France and Germany.
Both sides still accuse each other on a daily basis of breaking the truce, however, and Tuesday’s shelling appeared more intense than in previous days.
In rebel-held Donetsk, among the ruins of the city’s airport, artillery fire was heard coming toward rebel positions from the direction of Ukraine’s frontline stronghold of Pisky.
“We have no mortar rockets anywhere here. We have already withdrawn everything bigger than 100 millimeters in accordance with the Minsk agreements,” said the Donetsk rebels’ self-styled defense minister Vladimir Kononov.
“If the Ukrainians continue to shoot...you just heard incoming fire...then I think it will lead to an end of the ceasefire,” he said among the loud explosions.
In Kiev, a military spokesman said rebels had shelled Ukrainian positions 22 times over the past day.
“An intensification of the enemy’s military operations was observed on the evening of March 2. They shot at Pisky with mortar bombs and with an anti-aircraft system at Avdiyivka,” said Ukrainian military spokesman Anatoly Stelmakh, naming two towns that have suffered heavy damage in the conflict.
The leaders of the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy discussed Ukraine at a video conference on Monday. France said a strong response would be necessary if the ceasefire agreement fails. Germany said sanctions imposed on Russia would not be lifted unless it succeeds.
Washington and Brussels accuse Moscow of arming the separatists and reinforcing their ranks with Russian troops. Russia has repeatedly denied involvement and blames the United States for pushing the pro-Western government in Kiev to war.
Some in Kiev have voiced worries that the rebels are using the ceasefire to prepare for more attacks around the strategically important Ukrainian-held port city of Mariupol in southern Donetsk province.
“The enemy is continuing to regroup and there is a significant accumulation of forces in the south,” said Interior Ministry adviser Zoryan Shkiryak.
Rebels deny planning an attack on Mariupol, saying they want to take control of the port through negotiations.
The ceasefire deal reached in the Belarus capital Mink was slow to take hold, with the rebels storming a strategic transport hub in Debaltseve on the fourth day of the truce before the fighting subsided.
Since late last week, journalists have seen guns being sent away from the front line on both sides. But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe tasked with monitoring the pullout says it cannot fully confirm it as it has not been given access to locations where some guns have been moved.
The West has pinned hopes on the Minsk agreement, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference in Brussels that while “incidents” remained, the overall picture showed that the ceasefire was holding.
“It is important that all sides respect their commitments and that the separatists backed by Russia do not use this pause in the fighting to prepare for a new offensive,” he said.
Poroshenko in a meeting with security chiefs said Kiev must cooperate more with OSCE monitors, who should be deployed around areas where the ceasefire has been repeatedly violated.
Ukraine’s parliament is expected this week to approve a request from Poroshenko for international peacekeepers to monitor the conflict, an idea that has received a lukewarm reception in European capitals and is scorned by Moscow.
Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets and Thomas Grove in Kiev and Adrian Croft in Brussels; Writing by Thomas Grove; Editing by Peter Graff