The ceasefire deal in eastern Ukraine was strained on Monday by reports of fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatists, and both sides questioned a demand to withdraw heavy weapons under a roadmap agreed last week.
At least five soldiers were killed and 25 injured over the past 24 hours, Ukraine’s Security Council said. Most of the casualties were believed to be from the region east of Mariupol, where Ukrainian troops took six towns and villages in an offensive last week.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin accused the pro-Russian separatists of violating the ceasefire that has been in place since Sunday.
“Over the past 24 hours there were unfortunately 112 shots fired by the terrorists,” Klimkin said in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, referring to the separatists. He insisted that Ukrainian forces were respecting the truce.
Security Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko said that Ukraine would not carry out the withdrawal of heavy weapons agreed in the truce as long as the ceasefire does not hold.
“112 shootings – that is not a ceasefire,” Lysenko said in Kiev, according to the Interfax Ukraine news agency.
The separatists accused the Ukrainian army of violating the truce and said they would not withdraw heavy weapons before the ceasefire holds.
The peace plan signed in Minsk by separatist leaders, Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stipulates that both sides must start withdrawing heavy weapons from the frontline at least two days after the ceasefire goes into force.
Defence Ministry spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said most of the ceasefire violations happened in the town of Debaltseve and that the military will not give up the strategic rail hub.
An unknown number of Ukrainian troops remained encircled in the town between the rebel strongholds Donetsk and Luhansk.
“The situation in Debaltseve is controllable. We have the possibility to bring ammunition and supplies to our positions,” Seleznyov was quoted as saying by local media.
Denis Pushilin, who negotiated the peace accord for the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” said that Donetsk airport came under fire from the Ukrainian side when the separatists’ defence minister visited it together with Russian journalists.
“We ask the leaders of Germany and France to note this incident,” he said. The roadmap was agreed at four-way talks in Minsk between the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the ceasefire “is fragile” and there is no guarantee that it will hold.
“The path is extremely difficult,” she said in Berlin.
Merkel was expected to take part in another telephone call about the ceasefire’s implementation together with the Presidents of France, Ukraine and Russia.
The call might happen on Monday evening or in the coming days, according to President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy aide Yury Ushakov.
Ushakov added that Moscow expects the fulfillment of all points of the peace accords signed in Minsk, Russian news agencies reported.
In Brussels, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the bloc is closely following the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
Despite a number of incidents, the ceasefire appears to be largely holding, said Maja Kocijancic, adding that the truce needs to be fully implemented. “A ceasefire is a ceasefire. It means that the shooting needs to stop.”
Kocijancic warned that work on possible further sanctions against Russia is “ongoing.”
Earlier on Monday the EU slapped sanctions on more Russian officials and lawmakers and on a number of separatists. The travel bans and asset freezes are likely to further fuel tensions between Moscow and the West, which have reached their highest point since the end of the Cold War.
Among the targets are First Deputy Defence Minister Arkady Bakhin and deputy defence minister Anatoly Antonov.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said that it made no sense to impose sanctions days after a new peace deal was signed. “You get the impression that the sanctions wheel is spinning out of control,” the ministry said.