Ukrainian troops came under fire near the key port city of Mariupol shortly after a team of international monitors ended their visit to the area. According to the BBC, their correspondent was still with Ukrainian troops at the time of the attack, and witnessed the heavy artillery fire. Just yesterday the White House accused Russia of increasing its presence in the area, although Moscow denies any involvement.
Ceasefire violations witnessed by BBC correspondent
A fragile ceasefire was signed in February between Ukraine and the pro-Russian separatists fighting in the East of the country. Ukrainian troops have long maintained that the fighting has continued regardless, and now the BBC’s Tom Burridge has seen how pro-Russian rebels are breaking the terms of the agreement.
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Not only was the correspondent present during the period of intense shelling, he was also taken to see a large unexploded shell which had reportedly crashed through an upstairs wall in the building. The size of the shell would suggest that it were fired by a heavy weapon, which were supposedly withdrawn from the frontline under the terms of the ceasefire.
Burridge reports that “the initial period of shelling went on for about an hour, before the Ukrainian forces started firing back.” It was apparently not a surprise to the Ukrainian troops that they were coming under fire, because they reportedly “sat, slept and rolled their eyes.” One of the soldiers testified that fighting in the area around Mariupol had actually got worse since the peace deal was signed in Minsk.
Information war rages on
A lot of the information coming out of the conflict zone is not to be trusted, as both sides attempt to win supporters using propaganda. Burridge has seen this first hand, having been “bombarded with information, unverified claims and accusations from both sides.” However the fact that a news correspondent has experienced the lack of respect for the ceasefire throws doubt on the ability of world leaders to resolve the conflict.
On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department accused “combined Russian-separatist forces” of keeping artillery and rocket launchers on the front line, in violation of the peace agreement. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf also claimed that Russia had deployed “additional air defense systems into eastern Ukraine,” as well as moving a group of them “nearer the front lines.”
Harf also spoke out on further evidence of Russian involvement, claiming that the separatists had been receiving an “increasingly complex nature” of training which “leaves no doubt that Russia is involved.”
Escalation appears to continue
The general theme of escalation is also evident in the fact that Russia is increasing its military presence along the border with Ukraine. “After maintaining a relatively steady presence along the border, Russia is sending additional units there. These forces will give Russia its largest presence on the border since October 2014,” continued Harf.
So far, Moscow has not responded to the claims. Russia has consistently denied arming or training pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, despite mounting evidence that the Kremlin is active in the region.
The government of Ukraine, Western leaders and NATO all maintain that there is clear evidence of Russian assisting rebels in the region with heavy weapons and soldiers. Independent observers support those claims. Moscow maintains that any Russians fighting alongside the rebels are “volunteers.”
U.S. sends troops to Ukraine
In order to support the Ukrainian army in their struggle with the pro-Russian separatists, approximately 300 U.S. paratroopers were sent to western Ukraine in order to train with national guard units. The introduction of U.S. forces in Ukraine, albeit for training purposes, did not go down well with Moscow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that the move “could seriously destabilize” the situation in the country.
It is worth remembering that under the terms of the Minsk peace deal, all foreign armed groups, weapons and mercenaries should leave Ukrainian territory. By sending paratroopers to the Ukraine, Moscow can argue that the U.S. is in fact violating the terms of the deal, although the counter-claim will presumably be that Russia has never respected the terms of the agreement.
The fighting has killed at least 6,116 people since last April, according to the UN. A conflict which began in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions now appears to be spreading towards the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed last March. There are fears that the Russian separatists are targeting the strategic port city of Mariupol as part of an eventual plan to join eastern Ukraine with the Crimea.