Ukraine Death Toll Edges Up Despite Ceasefire

(Reuters) -

Five Ukrainian servicemen have been killed in the past four days, the military said Tuesday, underscoring the strains in a ceasefire between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

The ceasefire, agreed on Friday, is part of a peace plan meant to end a five-month conflict that has killed more than 3,000.

Russia, accused by Kiev and the West of sending troops into eastern Ukraine and arming the rebels, urged both sides to begin talks soon on the region’s final political status. It denies accusations of intervening in the conflict.

Under the ceasefire, Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said rebels had so far released 648 prisoners of war. He said the Ukrainian side was working for the release of a further 500 POWs.

The ceasefire largely held, despite sporadic violations, including in rebel-held Donetsk, the region’s largest city, where government forces hold the airport.

Russian Criticism

Speaking in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the Ukrainian forces of preparing a strike against the rebels, based on what he said were reports of a “heavy concentration” of troops in an area northeast of Donetsk.

Lavrov also said Moscow hoped talks could start soon on the status of southeast Ukraine, where the rebels have declared two “people’s republics” outside Kiev’s control.

Kiev has said it could grant greater autonomy to the mainly Russian-speaking region, which is home to much of Ukraine’s heavy industry and accounts for about 18 percent of its economic output, but firmly rules out independence.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was quoted on Tuesday as saying his government would support domestic firms targeted by Western sanctions over Russia’s role in Ukraine.

The European Union formally adopted a package of new sanctions targeting Russia’s energy sector on Monday but said their entry into force would be delayed to allow time to assess whether the ceasefire in Ukraine was working.

Peace Hopes

In eastern Ukraine, Mariupol, the main flashpoint along with Donetsk, was quiet on Tuesday, one day after President Petro Poroshenko paid a brief visit to show solidarity with a city the rebels had appeared intent on capturing before the ceasefire.

Poroshenko told cheering residents on Monday he had ordered reinforcements to the city and promised to deal a “crushing defeat” to rebels massed nearby if they tried to advance again in violation of the ceasefire deal.

“After that bombardment (on Saturday night) we have had two quiet days and I am hoping it will stay that way. This war is taking its toll on everyone and I am hoping this will end soon,” Evgeny, a 22-year-old student, told Reuters on Tuesday.