Kirill Kudryavtsev / Reuters

Fighting continues despite Ukraine truce agreement

Negotiations in Minsk yield deal after 17 hours, but key players offer differing interpretations of agreement

Fighting on the ground in eastern Ukraine made clear on Thursday that the truce agreed by Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany after marathon overnight talks in Minsk has not settled the conflict over the territory's future. Forces loyal to the Ukrainian government and Moscow-backed separatist rebels waged continued artillery battles over where on the map the cease-fire lines will be drawn by the end of Saturday, when the new truce requires that guns are silenced. And the differing interpretations of the agreement offered by Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko and Russia's President Vladimir Putin raised doubts about the prospects for the latest holding truces where others have collapsed. 

The agreement requires the withdrawal of heavy weaponry to at least 30 miles away from the frontline, exchanges of prisoners and withdrawal of foreign troops. It also allowed for a lifting of the humanitarian siege on rebel-held areas and for constitutional provisions to be made for the rebel-dominated eastern regions to be granted autonomy from Kiev, and for Ukrainian government control to be restored over the border with Russia by the end of this year. 

Putin, in his remarks following 16 hours of talks in the Belarus capital, emphasized the autonomous status that would be granted to rebel-held areas, and agreement for humanitarian relief to rebel-held cities.  

It “was not the best night in my life,” Putin said, but the morning had been good “because we have managed to agree on the main things despite all the difficulties of the negotiations."

His Ukrainian counterpart, Poroshenko, however, denied that there was any agreement over autonomy for breakaway regions. The two also disagreed over a key battleground in the crisis, the government-held town of Debaltseve.

A key transport hub between the two main rebel-controlled cities in the east, Debaltseve has been the focus of intense fighting in recent weeks as the rebels sought to encircle the Ukrainian troops there.

Putin said that the rebels consider the Ukrainian forces defending the town to be surrounded and expect them to surrender. Ukraine disagrees with that assessment. And both sides appear to be continuing that argument on the ground, with weapons, on Thursday.  

Clarifying the situation in Debaltseve remains a hurdle if the latest cease-fire is to be successful. Previous attempts to forge peace have fallen short of ending the violence that has resulted in the deaths of 5,300 combatants and civilians since April. 

The last cease-fire agreed to in September fell apart as Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed rebels both tried to gain more ground.

Nonetheless, leaders emerging from the 17-hour Minsk talks appeared hopeful that this truce would stick.

"The main thing which has been achieved is that from Saturday into Sunday there should be declared without any conditions at all, a general ceasefire," Poroshenko told journalists.

The urgency felt by all sides appeared to be underlined by the extraordinary length and discomfort of the talks, which began Wednesday evening in the Belarusian capital and continued uninterrupted through the night as crowds of reporters waited anxiously in a marble-floored, chandeliered convention hall in Minsk.

The French-German diplomatic dash came as President Barack Obama considered rising calls at home for sending arms to Ukraine, a move that the European leaders fear would only widen hostilities.

Speaking after the talks, French President Francois Hollande said the new cease-fire deal has come as a "relief to Europe."

"We came to an agreement, an agreement on a cease-fire and on a global political settlement of the Ukrainian conflict," Hollande said. "That global settlement will include all issues, from the cease-fire to the control of the border, to decentralization, and, of course, the pullback of heavy weapons and resuming economic relations."

He also praised Putin for applying "pressure as much as necessary on the separatists."

German chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman added via Twitter: "After 17 hours, negotiations in Minsk have finished: ceasefire from Feb. 15 at zero hours, then withdrawal of heavy weapons. Therein lies hope."

Poroshenko said all parties at the talks agreed to help Ukraine reclaim the control of the border with Russia.

He added that heavy weaponry will be withdrawn from both sides by 31 to 43 miles in the next two weeks. Poroshenko added the accords signed in Minsk give no autonomy to rebel-held areas.

Poroshenko also said the documents signed envisage the withdrawal of all foreign troops and militias from Ukraine — a reference to the soldiers and weapons that Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of having sent into eastern Ukraine to back the rebels. 

The differing interpretations and ongoing fighting, however, signal that the agreement concluded in Minsk will at best allow stakeholders to better manage and contain what remains an unresolved conflict over whether eastern Ukraine will follow Kiev into the Western geopolitical orbit, or remain in Russia's.  

Al Jazeera and wire services

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