Guns mostly fall silent in east Ukraine as ceasefire takes hold
DONETSK (Reuters) - Guns fell abruptly silent at midnight across much of eastern Ukraine in line with a ceasefire agreement, although periodic shooting near a frontline railway junction showed that the truce was fragile. Reuters journalists in Donetsk, the main rebel stronghold, said artillery bombardment halted at midnight and they heard no firing overnight, after intense final hours before the ceasefire when shells had exploded every few seconds. A single explosion could be heard in the morning from an outlying suburb. A Reuters photographer in government-held territory also said constant bombardment had halted overnight, although he heard a volley of artillery around 7 a.m. from the direction of Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub town where Ukrainian forces have nearly been surrounded by advancing rebels. The Ukrainian government said on Sunday morning that the ceasefire was being "generally observed". Its forces had been shelled 10 times in the hours since the truce took effect, but it described those incidents as "localized" rather than regular. None of its soldiers were killed in the last 24 hours. "Yesterday and the day before were hot, they were shooting from here and from there. But today is quiet and calm. All is good," said Donetsk resident Rodion Biralyan, 50. A Ukrainian staff officer stationed near Debaltseve said: "The general level (of attacks) has decreased, although there are violations." Washington accused Moscow of sending armored columns of troops into action in the final days before the ceasefire to help pro-Russian rebels score territorial gains before the truce took effect. Nevertheless, the ceasefire restored some semblance of calm for the first time since pro-Russian rebels spurned a previous ceasefire last month and launched an advance that had alarmed Western countries. Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko, wearing the uniform of the armed forces supreme commander, said in a midnight televised address in the capital Kiev that he had ordered troops to stop firing in line with the truce. He said there was still alarm over the situation around Debaltseve. The ceasefire, negotiated in four-power talks on Thursday, foresees creation of a neutral buffer zone and withdrawal of heavy weapons. More than 5,000 people have been killed in a conflict that has caused the worst crisis in Russia-West relations since the Cold War. Russian President Vladimir Putin denies Moscow is involved in fighting for territory he calls "New Russia". Western officials cite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and Washington and its allies have imposed economic sanction on Moscow. Poroshenko said that if Ukraine were slapped once, it would not offer the other cheek. But, seated alongside armed forces chief of staff Viktor Muzhenko, he added: "I very much hope that the last chance to begin the long and difficult peaceful process for a political settlement will not be wasted."