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Reports Of Fighting Violate Truce In Eastern Ukraine

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Ukraine, the question of whether a cease-fire is holding might depend on your definition of cease-fire. Both sides in the conflict between Ukraine's military and pro-Russian rebels had agreed to stop the shooting yesterday. And European leaders said in its early hours the cease-fire was being respected for the most part. But let's zoom in on one area where fighting was intense before the weekend, the city of Debaltseve, a major rail hub where Ukrainian troops have been surrounded by pro-Russian rebels. Journalist Alec Luhn is near that city and told us it has been anything but quiet.

ALEC LUHN: I myself was hearing mortar fire from the direction of Debaltseve. It sounded like both incoming and outgoing from Ukrainian positions. The soldier I talked to said, yes, there's no cease-fire here. The fighting has continued. However, it does appear that it has abated a little bit. So the fighting got a little more quiet. The firing stopped at other places around the front lines. But Debaltseve remains a major unresolved issue and that's - is going to be what keeps the cease-fire from coming completely into effect until some solution is reached.

GREENE: Well, Alec, given all that, I mean, even if the fighting has abated, it's still happening. I mean, are people on the ground - residents - are they optimistic all that the cease-fire will mean anything?

LUHN: All the residents I've talked to have looked at the cease-fire with a lot of cynicism. Very few believe that it can actually do any good. They've seen two cease-fires come into effect already, one in June, one in September. Both those cease-fires devolved into open fighting.

I was at a funeral yesterday for a 7-year-old boy who was killed here in the city of Artemivsk, which is just north of Debaltseve. What appears to be a rebel rocket attack hit the outskirts of the city killed this 7-year-old boy and a 25-year-old woman. The mother of the boy told me, when will this end? They're killing women and children. She was in shock and couldn't believe that this had happened, especially in Artemivsk, which is behind the front lines and has not suffered much from the fighting here in eastern Ukraine.

GREENE: I could imagine a funeral like that being a place where in a strange way the conflict almost doesn't exist because people have all come together to mourn the loss of someone. And we've heard so much about this conflict that there are many people from both sides who are sort of just getting to the point where they want it to be over.

LUHN: Yes. But on the other hand, there are a lot of patriotic feelings. For instance, with this funeral, Artemivsk is not such a big place. People know that the boy was killed. A lot of people knew the family. And I was talking to one man, and he claimed that the Ukrainian forces had shelled their own city and killed this boy. So you know, tensions are still running very high, still a lot of feelings of betrayal both among those who support the Ukrainian side and among those like this man I was talking to who support the rebel side.

GREENE: Betrayal, you say, because this was a place where people all lived relatively peacefully and now feel betrayed by one side or the other in this conflict.

LUHN: Absolutely. I was talking to a woman yesterday. She's a medic here in Artemivsk, and her son is fighting inside of Debaltseve. And she feels that he and his comrades there have been betrayed by the Kiev government, which on the one hand has not mounted a major military operation to take back the city and to open a corridor, preferring instead to try and negotiate for this cease-fire. But on the other hand, reports from Minsk indicate that President Petro Poroshenko refused to even negotiate on the status of Debaltseve. He essentially refused to give the Russian side anything in exchange for Debaltseve because he claims that it's not besieged. It's not cut off. However, all the facts on the ground prove that it is cut off, that Ukrainian forces there are not receiving supplies or weapons, that they're basically trapped and the cease-fire has not saved them because rebels continue to fire.

GREENE: All right. We've been speaking to journalist Alec Luhn, who is near the city of Debaltseve in the eastern part of Ukraine. Alec, thanks very much.

LUHN: Thanks. It's been my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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