Ukraine Ceasefire Largely Holding, Debaltseve Still Tense

LUHANSKE, Ukraine (AP) -

A ceasefire that went into effect Sunday in eastern Ukraine appeared largely to be holding, although continued fighting over a bitterly contested railway hub is threatening to upend the delicate settlement.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, who last week brokered a deal to try to end the conflict that has raged since April, agreed in a conference call Sunday that hostilities should also cease around the government-held town of Debaltseve, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s office said. Undeterred, armed separatists appeared intent to pursue their claim to the town.

Heavy fog shrouding sodden fields muffled the sound of artillery, but regular shelling could still be heard from Luhanske, a town about 15 kilometers (9 miles) to northwest of Debaltseve and over 80 kilometers west of the city Luhansk. Associated Press journalists were blocked from moving closer by Ukrainian troops, who said it was not safe to travel ahead.

The ceasefire has kindled slender hopes of a reprieve from a conflict that has claimed more than 5,300 lives. Withdrawal of heavy armor from the front line by both sides is scheduled to begin Monday.

Attention will be focused in the coming days on Debaltseve, where Ukrainian forces have been fending off severe onslaughts from the rebels for weeks. The town is a railway link between the main separatist-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The diminution in hostilities was agreed after a marathon session of diplomacy that brought together Poroshenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French leader Francois Hollande for talks in the capital of Belarus, Minsk.

In a conference call Sunday, the leaders agreed the ceasefire should extend to Debaltseve, according to a statement from Poroshenko’s office.

That flies in the face of the position taken by rebels, who argue they should be granted immediate control over the town as it is entirely surrounded by their forces. Separatist officials have said any force adopted against Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve would accordingly not violate the Minsk agreement.

As he issued the ceasefire order at one minute after midnight Kiev time Sunday, Poroshenko had said the road to the town remained open and that Ukrainian troops there had been resupplied with ammunition.

Merkel’s office said that the call’s participants welcomed the general acceptance of the truce, but were concerned about continuing combat operations, especially in the area around Debaltseve.

“They showed determination to work toward a full implementation of the true. As a next step, Tuesday’s agreed on withdrawal of heavy arms had to be started,” the statement said.