Pro-Russian Rebels Refuse Ukraine Ceasefire Deal In Embattled Town — 'Of Course We Can Open Fire'

Jonathan Vankin

Pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine refused to honor the ceasefire agreement signed last Thursday by Russian and Ukraine leaders, at least in the besieged town of Debaltseve where the Russian-backed forces have Ukraine government troops surrounded.

The ceasefire deal went into effect just after midnight local time Sunday morning — that is, around 4 p.m. EST Saturday — and according to reports from the region, has largely held for the first 24 hours of the halt in the civil war that has killed a reported 5,400 people since April of 2014.

But after the ceasefire was signed, the U.S. State Department warned that Russia was sending large numbers of missiles, rocket launchers, and tanks to the rebel militias around Debaltseve and other towns in the region claimed by rebels as their own.

That claim is exactly why, according to one rebel military leader, the pro-Russia forces who want to secede from Ukraine feel that the ceasefire deal does not apply to the fighting in Debaltseve.

"Of course we can open fire (on the town). It is our territory," Eduard Basurin told the U.K. news agency Reuters. "The territory is internal, ours. And internal is internal. But along the line of confrontation there is no shooting."

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko insisted that the ceasefire deal that he signed in Minsk, Belarus, on Thursday — along with Russian President Vladimir Putin and leaders from France and Germany — called for a "full and unconditional" stop to all fighting, with Debaltseve being no exception.

The town is a strategically important railway center, and rebel leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko disputed Poroskenko's position, asserting that Debaltseve was not mentioned in the ceasefire agreement.

About 8,000 Ukraine government troops remain trapped in the town, and Zakharchenko warned that his fighters would not allow the Ukraine soldiers to leave the region alive.

"We will block all attempts to break out," Zakharchenko said on Sunday. "I have given the order."

Poroshenko said that even though he had ordered his country's military forces to cease all hostilities, he would "not turn the other cheek" if the Ukraine troops in the disputed eastern town are harmed.

The Ukraine military said that there had been about 10 incidents of shelling by the pro-Russia separatist rebels since the ceasefire deal went into effect, but that overall, fighting appeared to have stopped.

Ukraine also said that none of its soldiers had been killed in the isolated shelling by the pro-Russia rebels since the truce was enacted at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

[Image:Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images]