Tuesday, July 1, 2014 9:35 am
KIEV – Ukrainian forces on Tuesday went on the attack against pro-Russian insurgents in the separatist east in defiance of European efforts to extend a shaky 10-day truce.
Western-backed President Petro Poroshenko told the nation in an emotional late-night address that his peace plan for Ukraine’s worst crisis since independence was being used by the militias to regroup and stock up on heavy arms from Russia.
“After examining the situation I have decided, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, not to extend the unilateral ceasefire,” the 48-year-old said from his office.
“The separatists’ leaders have demonstrated their unwillingness and inability to control the actions of the terrorist units and marauding gangs under their control.”
Parliament speaker Oleksandr Turchynov told a morning session of parliament that the “active phase” of the military operation had already resumed.
“Our armed forces are attacking the terrorists’ bases and strongholds,” Turchynov announced.
Both separatist fighters and pro-Kiev leaders reported a series of new skirmishes breaking out on Tuesday morning across the eastern rustbelt — home to seven million mostly Russian speakers.
The regional administration of Donetsk — which has declared its allegiance to Moscow along with the neighbouring border province of Lugansk — said four civilians were killed in a rebel attack on a bus near the town of Kramatorsk.
Western-backed Hromadske TV in Kiev said its journalist and cameraman were abducted in the Lugansk region. Sporadic exchanges of fire were also reported in the early morning in the centre of the million-stong city of Donetsk.
Poroshenko’s decision came just hours after the leaders of France and Germany joined him on a conference call to Russian President Vladimir Putin — the third such conversation in five days.
French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were in rare agreement with Putin that Poroshenko should extend the truce to give indirect talks between separatist commanders and Kiev a chance.
But the contacts have mostly failed to halt 11 weeks of fighting that have killed more than 450 people and displaced tens of thousands across Ukraine’s economically-vital industrial regions of Lugansk and Donetsk.
– Failed diplomacy –
Poroshenko told the three leaders that insurgents had attacked Ukrainian positions more that 100 times during the truce.
The separatists likewise accuse government forces of having continued to shell the dozen cities and towns under their control during the official spell in hostilities.
“Calls for the militias to lay down their arms can be discussed only after the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces,” the Lugansk region’s self-declared premier Vasyl Nikitin told Russia’s Interfax news agency.
Poroshenko had come under extreme pressure from Ukrainian nationalists to relaunch the offensive and meet his May 25 election promise to reunite Ukraine.
Hundreds rallied outside his office in Kiev on Sunday demanding an end to the truce. Election rivals such as former premier Yulia Tymoshenko have also spoken out strongly in favour of a more forceful military response.
But Poroshenko insisted in his address to the nation that he was not abandoning his earlier peace plan altogether.
“We are even ready to return to a ceasefire at any moment. When we see that all the parties agree to enact the essential points of the peace plan,” he said.
“Peace has been and will remain my main goal. Only the means to achieve it have changed.”
– Putin pressure –
Both Kiev and its Western allies have accused Putin of both helping arm and fund the separatists in reprisal for the February ouster of a Kremlin-backed leader who had rejected closer European ties.
The Kremlin denies all charges but still faces the threat of devastating economic sanctions being unleashed by the West against Russia should Putin fail to demonstrate a clear desire to resolve the conflict.
The Russian strongman has publically taken a more conciliatory approach to Kiev in response.
He has pressed for direct negotiations and a long-term truce. Western powers have also reported a significant withdrawal of Russian troops from the border with Ukraine.
But Putin has notably failed to meet the main Western demand of calling on the rebels to lay down their weapons and relinquish control of roadblocks and border crossing across Lugansk and Donetsk.
Poroshenko for his part has refused to meet directly with separatist leaders who have “blood on their hands”.