Fears of new flareup in Ukraine as violence grows on frontline

Yulia Silina
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A Ukrainian soldier patrols past a destroyed school in the village of Pisky near Donetsk October 26, 2015

A Ukrainian soldier patrols past a destroyed school in the village of Pisky near Donetsk October 26, 2015 (AFP Photo/Anatolii Stepanov)

Pisky (Ukraine) (AFP) - It's been only two months since Yelena Krivonos has stopped sleeping in her cellar to hide from shelling, but now that violence has ticked up in eastern Ukraine she is headed back underground.

"Combat has begun again," the 31-year-old mother of two said after taking warm clothing for herself and her children to the basement. "At night they are launching mortars and something heavier, the house is shaking again."

"I guess the end of this war is still a long way off."

Yelena's house stands close to the frontline near Donetsk, the largest city held by pro-Russian separatists in the country's east who have battled with Ukraine's forces since April 2014.

In September, the latest in a string of Western-brokered ceasefire agreements went into force, pushing fighting to its lowest level since close to the start of the conflict.

Officially the warring sides insist they have been withdrawing weapons, with Ukraine's military on Saturday saying it has pulled their 82-mm mortars back from the frontline, following similar declarations by pro-Moscow rebels.

On the ground however, each side is accusing the other of firing at soldiers and civilians, underlining the fragility of the truce that some fear could disintegrate like previous ceasefires.

In the village of Pisky, the closest Ukrainian position to the ravaged rebel-controlled Donetsk airport, soldiers report combat injuries every day.

On the other side of the frontline in rebel-held territory, Yelena's village of Staromikhailivka and outlying neighbourhoods of the insurgent capital Donetsk complain of Ukrainian attacks.

"Even after pulling back heavy weapons, we are seeing the enemy take tanks almost into Pisky," said Dmitry Dvoichenkov, artillery operator and press officer for Ukraine's 93rd brigade based in the village.

"They are shooting every day from firearms, mortar launchers and grenade launchers," he said. "Lately we even had people die... constantly we have people hit, our guys are injured on a daily basis."

If there is a full-blown assault on Ukrainian positions, "we'll defend with what we have," Dvoichenkov said, adding that the rest of weaponry could reach the frontline "within an hour".

On Tuesday, Kiev said four Ukrainian soldiers were injured in eastern Ukraine.

- Finger pointing -

Military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov accused the rebels of trying to "provoke us to return fire to disrupt the truce" and to "distract OSCE observers from the fact that they are not pulling back heavy weapons."

Kiev suspects that rebels are worried about the next step of the ceasefire agreement signed in Minsk in February, which requires them to give control of the Russian border back to Ukrainian authorities.

On the rebel side, Donetsk People Republic's (DNR) officials say attacks could be launched by rogue Ukrainian forces.

"Battalions that are not under Kiev's control shot at Donetsk," said DNR defense ministry spokesman Eduard Basurin. "They are doing it on purpose, provoking us to respond," he told AFP.

With the conflict that has killed over 8,000 people now dragging out into its second winter, some voices in Kiev are expressing fear that a new cycle of violence could still follow months of relative quiet.

The most recent report by the OSCE monitoring mission, released Sunday evening, noted a "relatively tense general situation" in the area, including a "considerable number of military hardware" moving in areas where it is supposed to have been withdrawn.

On the frontline, tension is felt by troops guarding checkpoints separating government-controlled territory from rebel-held zones.

"Snipers shoot at us in the evening and at night," said one soldier named Oleg guarding a post in Marinka, the last Ukrainian position before rebel areas, as he pointed to a foggy ravine.

"Lately they are coming so close that we can see them with the naked eye," he said.