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Ukraine Reaches Ceasefire Agreement with Pro-Russia Forces

The landmark meeting in Belarus resulted in the first serious agreement to lay down arms in a conflict that has claimed more than 2,600 lives.

by Harriet Salem
Sep 5 2014, 11:25pm

Photo by Harriet Salem

At a meeting on Friday afternoon, the Ukrainian government and pro-Russia rebels announced they had reached a ceasefire agreement, in what war-weary locals in the country's east desperately hope is the first step towards ending fighting that began in mid-April.

A Ukrainian fighter on the final checkpoint on the eastern outskirts of Mariupol as clashes rage nearby.

The landmark meeting in Belarus — which brought together representatives from Moscow, Kiev, and the rebel republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, alongside international watchdog the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe — resulted in the first serious agreement to lay down arms in a conflict that has claimed over 2,600 lives, according to the latest United Nations estimates.

The points agreed on related to the exchange of prisoners, delivery of humanitarian aid to the areas affected by the conflict, and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from firing range of major cities.

Three Ukrainian border guards being held at Novoazovsk border crossing between Ukraine and Russia which was seized by pro-Russian forces last week. Hundreds of prisoners have been taken by both sides since the conflict began.

Speaking to press at the end of the Minsk meeting Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko referred to the mounting death toll in the fighting as an incentive for peace.

"Human life is the highest value. We must do everything possible and impossible to end the bloodshed and put an end to people's suffering," he told journalists.

Over the last 10 days, Ukraine's forces have lost nearly an entire summer of gains as the pro-Russia forces have pushed a new front in the country's southeast and won a number of decisive battles amid mounting evidence of significant on-the-ground support from Russian soldiers.

NATO has said that more than 1,000 Russian troops are now operating inside Ukraine's borders, while military officials in Kiev have claimed that the number could be even higher at between 3,000 and 4,000.

Kiev and its western allies have long accused Moscow of covertly supporting the uprising in Ukraine's east by allowing men and arms to flow across the porous border between the two countries.

Among the most significant victories won by the pro-Russia force in the last week and a half, was the routing of Kiev-backed troops from Illoviask — a city 28 miles south of Donetsk where fighting had raged for more than three weeks — as well as the seizure of a stretch of the Azov coastline that runs up to the Novazovsk border crossing with Russia in the southeast.The latter victory brought the pro-Russia forces to within six miles of Mariupol, a strategically significant port city that lies on an artery road running down to Crimea, Ukraine's southern peninsula annexed by Moscow following a Putin-backed putsch earlier this year.

In the last twenty-four hours, even as the peace talks were underway in Minsk, clashes continued near Mariupol as Ukrainian forces edged ever further back toward the outskirts of the city.

A pro-Kiev National Guard fighter checks his ammunition on the grass next to a tank. Less than six miles away shells are landing in the fields near the eastern outskirts of Mariupol even as peace talks are underway in Minsk.

Indeed, until just an hour or so before the ceasefire came into effect the booming ping-ping exchange of outgoing and incoming grad, mortar, and artillery fire was audible across the city with some hits close enough to set off car alarms in central streets.

"We saw the mortars landing all around us and retreated from our position, we didn't have any other option" Stanislav, a 32-year-old fighter in the National Guard, told VICE News. The 20 or so fighters smoking and resting by an armored personnel carrier admitted they were nervous about the situation, but said that overall spirits were high.

"[The Russians] have much better weapons than us, but we're not just going to give up and go home," said 19-year-old Maxim from Kiev. The group laughed as outgoing fire roared in the nearby field, "an message for our Russian friends, special delivery," joked one gunman lifting his head up from a rocket-propelled grenade he was using as a pillow.

As the ceasefire came finally came into effect the atmosphere at Mariupol's eastern checkpoint was ultimately, however, one of relief as the halt in gunfire seemed to signal at least a temporary end to the fighting.

Shortly after the 5 pm deadline, in a charged symbolic gesture, the three tanks that had been positioned at the port city's last line of defense turned around and headed back toward the city center. Two trucks of weary fighters with dirt-smeared faces trundled away into the darkness, presumably heading back to base for some much needed rest.

Many, however, said that they believed the break in fighting would only be temporary.

"We don't have a solution here that anyone will be happy with, not us and not them. So really how can this be the end?" Maxim said.

At one Mariupol's emergency hospitals the high costs of the recent battles was on display as the Kiev-appointed Governor of Donetsk Sergey Taruta visited fighters seriously wounded on the front line, where shells were landing this morning less than six miles from the outskirts of the city.

This Ukrainian fighter has just undergone surgery for a bullet injury in his shoulder and shrapnel wound on his leg. He was injured yesterday in clashes near Mariupol.

Talking about the ceasefire Taruta told VICE News that going to the negotiating table with "terrorists" was unpalatable but necessary to "save lives."

"We have learned something here from the English experience with the IRA" he said. Asked about whether peace would last he just held his hands upwards and said "the chance is about half and half."

While a respite in the fighting is much-needed for the beleaguered government forces whether or not Kiev will be able to keep enough control over its men to enforce a hold in fire remains to be seen.

Kiev has relied heavily on so-called volunteer battalions of patriots, but many of the fighters say that they have been let down by the government who thrust them onto the front line with insufficient weapons and support.

"We have been betrayed and we will never forget that," said 43-year-old Igor, a fighter in the Dnipro 1 battalion injured in the battle for Iloviaksk. Igor, who broke his back during the clashes, claimed that Russian agents operating inside the government and a lack of decisiveness amongst the anti-terror operation's command structure were responsible for some of the recent debacles.

"They're afraid to be responsible for taking decisions," he told VICE News. "We were promised reinforcements but they never came... hundreds were killed as they retreated".

"Those who are still here fighting, who haven't run away even though they don't have enough weapons, they are real men. We will this war and then clean up Kiev," he added.

Sergy Taruta, the Governor of Donetsk, visits Igor a fighter in the Dnipro 1 Battalion who broke his back in the battle for Iloviask in Mariupol hospital.

While Igor was complimentary about Taruta, who visited him in his sick bed, two fighters outside the hospital shouted that the governor was a "traitor" and a "criminal" as his car drive away.

Meanwhile public opinion remains another obstacle. With an election penciled in for October the government will be acutely aware that a frozen conflict situation or a de facto recognition that large parts of the country's east have been lost will be politically unpalatable for voters.

Furthermore, opinion in Mariupol and many other cities in the country's east and southeast, where both presidential elections and a rebel-held referendum were held earlier in the year, is deeply divided and the heavy handed campaign by Kiev has done little to garner it support in the region where many instinctively already look to Russia.

Earlier today, as grad rumbled in the distance one family, sunbathing on beach overlooking the nearby coastal hook seized by pro-Russia forces earlier in the week, told VICE News they were still hopeful that their city would also fall as they took turns peering through binoculars at the smoke on the horizon.

Locals look at smoke on the horizon as grad fire rumbles in the distance, not all of them support the government forces who currently hold Mariupol, a port city of nearly half a million people.

"We're waiting for our guys" said Irina, a 52-year-old bakery shop assistant who was born in Siberia but has lived most her life in Mariupol. "The city is divided about 50/50 .. but for me Russia is better, I have a Ukrainian passport but I am Russian, we are much closer with them historically than we are with Europe."

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