KIEV/DONETSK, Ukraine, (Reuters) – Pro-Russian separatists attacked Ukrainian posts on the border with Russia and a military base, and tried to storm an airforce base overnight into Saturday, government forces said, putting a Ukrainian unilateral ceasefire under pressure.
The fresh action came just hours after the start of a ceasefire at 10 p.m. on Friday by Ukrainian forces, ordered by President Petro Poroshenko as part of his plan to end the rebel insurgency in the east of the country.
A government forces spokesman said the separatists used mortars and sniper fire to attack Ukrainian posts at Izvareno and Uspenka on the border, wounding nine Ukrainian officers.
In other incidents, rebels with big calibre machine guns and grenade-launchers attacked a Ukrainian military position at Avdiyivka, near the main regional town of Donetsk, as well as a Ukrainian post at Kreminna.
Separatists controlling the town of Slaviansk also attacked Ukrainian forces on Karachun hill overlooking the town with mortars and grenade-launchers, the spokesman, Vladyslav Seleznyov, said.
“In all these episodes, the attacks of the (rebel) fighters were deflected,” Seleznyov said. “There were no losses to Ukrainian servicemen. The number of dead fighters is being established”.
Poroshenko, announcing the week-long ceasefire on Friday night, urged the rebels to lay down their arms and warned them that Ukrainian forces would return fire if attacked.
Ukrainian forces also repelled two attacks by around 50 heavily-armed fighters in the early morning on an air defence base at Avdiyivka, which houses surface-to-air missiles, the defence ministry said separately. No Ukrainian personnel were hurt and rebel losses were being established, it added.
The rebels, who have seized strategic points in major towns including Donetsk and set up “people’s republics”, saying they want to join Russia, said Ukraine has broken its own ceasefire.
“I’ve spoken to our commander-in-chief, Igor Strelkov. He said that fighting resumed in the morning. There is no ceasefire at all,” Pavel Gubarev, a prominent rebel leader, told Rossiya-24 TV channel.
Either Ukrainian troops were not obeying Poroshenko, or “he is lying”, Gubarev said.
Poroshenko, installed on June 7 as president after seven months of turmoil in the ex-Soviet republic, ordered government forces to cease firing to allow his 15-point peace plan to take root. The ceasefire ends at 10 p.m. on June 27.
The insurgency in the Russian-speaking east erupted in April after street protests in the capital Kiev toppled the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich. Russia subsequently annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
Poroshenko is gearing up for a diplomatic push to sell his plan but his biggest challenge will be to win over Russian President Vladimir Putin. Relations with Moscow are at rock bottom and Kiev accuses Moscow of fomenting the unrest.
Poroshenko has offered an amnesty to separatists who disarm voluntarily as well as corridors to allow fighters from Russia or pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists to leave safely for Russia.
The Kremlin on Friday denounced the ceasefire as an ultimatum rather than a peace offering and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed concern about Ukrainian military action.
“It is disturbing and raises concerns that, simultaneously with this (ceasefire) announcement…the so-called anti-terrorist operation is increasing,” Interfax quoted him as saying during a visit to Saudi Arabia.
Ukraine, for its part, expressed concern on Saturday about an increase in Russian movements near the border.
“The continuing concentration of Russian armed forces and their heightened activity near the border with Ukraine causes special concern against a background of numerous facts that confirm weapons and military equipment are being supplied to the terrorists,” Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
In Donetsk about 100 troops of the self-styled separatist Donetsk People’s Republic took an oath of an allegiance, in an apparent sign of defiance to Porosheko’s peace plan.
In a ceremony on the town’s Lenin Square, armed fighters, some wearing face masks, pledged they would “defend the Donetsk People’s Republic to the last drop of blood.”
“We swear, we swear, we swear,” they chanted in unison.
Alexei, a miner, said he decided to take up arms last week: “I am 43. I have children. I had a job but I dropped everything to defend the homeland.”
A number of women, many in tears, rushed to hug troops and give them flowers. “A great day, a great day, we love our army. They will protect us from fascists,” said Nastya, 32, holding hands with one masked soldier.
Across the square, far from the crowd, Mykola, a 23 year-old student from Donetsk said he despised the rebels.
“They are stupid and short-sighted and brainwashed by Moscow propaganda and common people will continue to suffer.” He refused to give his full name fearing reprisals for his pro-Ukrainian position.