Ukraine ceasefire undermined, EU extends sanctions

Dmytro Gorshkov
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Nearly 8,000 people have been killed and 1.5 million displaced by the conflict in eastern Ukraine

Nearly 8,000 people have been killed and 1.5 million displaced by the conflict in eastern Ukraine (AFP Photo/Vasily Maximov)

Kiev (AFP) - Two civilians were killed Wednesday in eastern Ukraine, undermining fresh efforts to end continuing violence as the European Union extended sanctions against individuals deemed responsible for the conflict.

A Western-brokered ceasefire agreed in February has been punctuated by frequent deadly incidents.

In a fresh bid to restore peace, Ukrainian government and separatist representatives last week agreed to seek to end ceasefire violations from Tuesday as children began school term.

But after several days of a relative lull in the war-ravaged industrial east, a group of civilians and law enforcement officials were caught in an ambush in the rebel-controlled Lugansk region during an anti-smuggling operation.

Two civilians were killed and four soldiers wounded, said military spokesman Andriy Lysenko.

"During a clash, a volunteer and a member of the state fiscal service were killed," Lysenko told reporters, saying that it was an ambush and that the road was mined.

"An enemy sharpshooter was also at work," he added.

In July, Ukraine set up groups of law enforcement officers, tax officials and volunteers to combat smuggling of contraband goods across the demarcation line in eastern Ukraine.

The two victims were the first participants in such a group to be killed.

An aide to President Petro Poroshenko, Yuri Biryukov, wrote on his Facebook page that a member of the SBU security service and several paratroopers were wounded as a result of the attack.

Observers warn that gangs of smugglers are seeking to take advantage of the Ukraine conflict that has claimed more than 6,800 lives since April last year.

The attack came as EU sources said the 28-nation bloc would extend sanctions for another six months against Ukrainian and Russian figures accused of backing pro-Moscow rebels.

"There is a political agreement; (officials) agreed to extend the sanctions for six months to March next year," one source told AFP after a meeting of diplomats from European Union nations to discuss the sanctions.

The sources said EU member states are expected to formally endorse the decision ahead of the scheduled expiry of the sanctions on September 15.


-Scepticism over ceasefire-


Elsewhere in war-ravaged eastern Ukraine, the shaky truce appeared to be holding, the authorities said.

But some ordinary Ukrainians said they were sceptical that the ceasefire would last long.

"We had the same situation this past winter: they announced a ceasefire, things got quiet but then the shooting began again with renewed vigour," said Irina Shinkarenko, a 60-year-old retiree from rebel-held Donetsk.

Kiev and the West accuse Russia of backing the rebels with weapons and troops, a claim the Kremlin denies.

Under the Western-backed deal agreed in February, Kiev must grant pro-Russian separatists a degree of autonomy but Ukrainian ultra-nationalists oppose the plan.

Proposed reforms, which were given initial backing by lawmakers on Monday, set off street battles in Kiev immediately, with hundreds of protesters, some armed with hand grenades and baseball bats, clashing with police outside parliament.

The clashes killed three members of the National Guard and wounded more than 140 in the worst unrest in Kiev since a bloody uprising ousted the Moscow-backed president in early 2014, unleashing in turn a separatist insurgency in the east.


- Guardsman buried -


On Wednesday, hundreds of servicemen paid their last respects to one of the guardsmen. Many clutched flowers, while others held portraits of the other two victims.

The government blamed ultra-nationalists for the unrest, saying activists had thrown a live grenade outside the parliament.

President Petro Poroshenko has called the clashes a "stab in the back" and said the organisers would be severely punished.

The Ukrainian leader has found himself in a tight spot as the right-wing Radical Party quit his ruling coalition on Tuesday in protest at the draft reforms.

Opponents of the reform bill have branded it "un-Ukrainian" and observers say it may ultimately struggle to win final parliamentary approval.

Kiev's Western allies see the reforms giving the east more autonomy as a chance to end the armed conflict in the east.

The February truce calls for Kiev to implement "decentralisation" by the end of this year.

The West has voiced support for the controversial proposals, but expressed disquiet over Monday's violence.