SERGEI L. LOIKO, Mariuol, Ukrain (LA Times): Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Friday announced a cease-fire intended to end a 5-month-old conflict in the east of his nation that has killed more than 2,600 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
The agreement was reached in talks between his government, Russian officials, pro-Russia separatists and European mediators in the Belarus capital of Minsk. Heavy fighting in the southern city of Mariupol preceded the announced deadline for the cease-fire to take effect.
“Human life has the highest value and we must do everything possible and impossible to stop the bloodshed and put an end to human suffering,” Poroshenko said in a statement posted on the official presidential website.
Poroshenko said that he had ordered Ukrainian troops to cease fire at 6 p.m. following an appeal from Russia President Vladimir Putin for leaders of the rebellion in eastern Ukraine to do the same.
The Ukrainian leader told reporters in Wales, where he was attending a NATO summit, that the agreement included “12 practical steps for establishing peace and stability,” but he did not lay out what those measures would be.
“Now it is very important that this cease-fire lasts long and during this cease-fire we continue the political dialogue that can bring the peace and stability on Donbass,” said Poroshenko, referring to the region of eastern Ukraine where the fighting has been intense.
A spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which helped negotiate the truce, was reached by the Los Angeles Times by phone but also would not confirm details of the deal.
The Associated Press reported that Alexander Zakharchenko, the rebel leader from the Donetsk region, said the cease-fire would “allow us to save not only civilians’ lives, but also the lives of the people who took up arms in order to defend their land and ideals.”
But Igor Plotnitsky, the insurgent leader for the Luhansk region, told reporters that “this doesn’t mean that our course for secession is over” — a statement reflecting the deep divisions that threaten to derail peace efforts.
The conflict broke early this year when three months of protests drove pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovich from office and Russia subsequently seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Separatists in the east, which has a large population of Russian-speaking citizens, then launched a rebellion against the new Ukrainian government, seeking independence or ties to Russia.
Moscow has denied lending support to the separatists, though Russian mercenaries were long reported among their ranks and, more recently, NATO said columns of Russian troops had crossed the border into southern Ukraine to back up the separatist fighters.
The cease-fire announcement came on a day of heavy fighting near Mariupol, a city on the Sea of Azov that, if it fell, could help Russia gain a land bridge to Crimea. Overnight and early in the morning, Russian troops bombarded Ukrainian positions with artillery and missile fire. In the early afternoon, Ukrainian tank units supported by the infantry pushed back the attackers, a Ukrainian militia commander said.
“Both sides are interested in the cease-fire so they can regroup, exchange prisoners and even up the front line to avoid surprise moves from adversaries,” said Andrei Beletsky, commander of the militia’s Azov Battalion, whose troops took part in the offensive. “But the truce will not last long as their separatist demands are unacceptable and the only way to resolve the knot will be to cut it once again by sheer military force.
“We are ready for this kind of fight as we have proved today that we can not only efficiently defend our land but also launch an offensive on the seemingly superior foreign armed foreign force,” he said.
The fighting near Mariupol stopped as the 6 p.m. deadline arrived.
Special correspondent Victoria Butenko in Kiev contributed to this report.
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