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After Bloody Weekend, Ukraine Cease-Fire Thrown Into Fresh Doubt

After Bloody Weekend, Ukraine Cease-Fire Thrown Into Fresh Doubt

Fighting in eastern Ukraine had eased — if not completely stopped — between government forces and Russian-backed rebels after agreeing in February to a tenuous cease-fire. But this weekend, violence sharply escalated near Mariupol and Donetsk in a battle that once again could bring full-scale violence to eastern Ukraine.

The fighting broke out Sunday night and continued into Monday morning, with clashes concentrated around the Ukrainian-held port city of Mariupol and the rebel-held city of Horlivka, northeast of Donetsk. Authorities in Kiev said the separatists used howitzers to shell Sartana, on strategic Mariupol’s northern edge, adding that the fighting over the last 24 hours killed two Ukrainian soldiers, two civilians, and left seven wounded. Russian-backed rebels said at least three people were killed by government shelling in Horlivka.

The recent escalation is one of the largest cease-fire violations since the February agreement was reached in Minsk. Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said the rebels have attacked more than 140 times and were targeting civilians in what is feared as preparation for a push west into Ukrainian territory toward Mariupol. “The enemy has now adopted the tactic of firing and then quickly withdrawing,” Lysenko told reporters during a Monday briefing in Kiev. “The next time they’ll get a quick response. What has happened in Sartana is a challenge to our forces.”

A day earlier, Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said it was Ukrainian forces that fired first and appear to be preparing for an offensive with tanks and artillery. He was echoed Monday by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who blamed Ukraine for the uptick in violence, and accused Kiev of arranging a new attack.

“We are worried by the developments in recent days, which strongly recall preparation for more military actions,” Lavrov said. “It was like that in August last year when Ukrainian soldiers received the order to attack. It was like that in January of this year.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to visit Crimea on Monday, where he will promote tourism. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the visit a “continuation of the plan to escalate the situation.”

In an interview Sunday with the newspaper Bild am Sonntag, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described the growing violence in Ukraine as “explosive” and called for both sides to meet with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, as soon as possible. “A lot is at stake,” Steinmeier said. “If both parties to the conflict do not adhere to the peace process, the military situation could escalate again at any time.”

The recent clashes and war of words come amid frequent fighting in recent weeks, with both sides accusing each other daily of cease-fire violations. Skirmishes on Aug. 10 and later that week saw seven Ukrainian soldiers killed and more than 40 injured. Kiev accused the rebels of using Grad rockets in the attack and other barrage weapons, and threatened to reintroduce weapons that are banned under the cease-fire if rebels continued to attack with heavy artillery.

The heightened fighting also comes as Kiev accuses Russia of spurring new military activity in eastern Ukraine and along the Ukrainian border.

Military authorities in Ukraine claim more than 50,000 Russian troops are on, or within, Ukraine’s borders. Kiev’s National Security and Defense Council has said an estimated 9,000 Russian Federation Armed Forces personnel are believed to be inside Ukraine. The rest are said to be in the neighboring Rostov region of Russia. Moreover, at the end of June, the Ukrainian Dnipro-1 Battalion released drone footage of what it said showed the construction of a military base inside Ukraine.

Moscow has repeatedly denied any military involvement in the Ukraine conflict, which the United Nations estimates has killed more than 6,800 people since violence broke out in April 2014.

Photo credit: ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images