Scorning talk of peace, Ukraine fighters battle on

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Rebel fighter Roman smirks when asked about the two-year-old peace deal that was supposed to end what is now a 33-month war between government forces and separatists in Ukraine's east.

The camouflage-clad gunman in Europe's only armed conflict -- the bloodiest since the 1990s Balkans crises -- simply warms his trigger finger by a stove in a barracks on the frontline of the Russian-backed separatists' de facto capital Donetsk.

"I have been here from the very start, since 2014," the 32-year-old told AFP. He and many fighters like him decline to give their last names for security reasons.

"There are no peace deals. That is just paper. The Ukrainian side does not observe them -- I think the whole world knows that," he said.

Roman used to be a mechanic in one of the coal mines that dot the region. He downed his tools and picked up a gun the moment the conflict's first shots were fired.

He acknowledges being tired of the constant sound of shelling and the smell of drying pools of blood. The stalemate on the ground also saps his morale.

But he vows he will return to his family only when Ukraine recognises the independence of the Russian-speaking "people's republics" of Lugansk and Donetsk.

Roman says he is ready to fight to the death in a war that has already claimed more than 10,000 lives.

"We can end this war when they free our land. We want them to leave."

- 'We can support ourselves' -

The Minsk II accord of February 2015 -- reached by the Ukrainian and Russian presidents with the help of the leaders of Germany and France -- was meant to halt fighting between Kiev and the Kremlin-backed insurgents through a complex roadmap to peace.

It came as intense combat was stoking fears of open war between Russia and Ukraine and with Kiev accusing Moscow of covertly sending thousands of troops to fan the conflict.

The deal helped ease worries of a broader war but failed to eliminate the deep mistrust on all sides that has kept a political solution out of reach.

Roman says the only way dialogue can be restored is a change of power in Kiev that pushes out President Petro Poroshenko and returns Ukraine to the Russian orbit that it pulled out of during its February 2014 revolution.

But he says he does not want his Russian-speaking region to join Russia: all he wants is his own state that has close ties to the Kremlin.

"We have our own coal industry and steel mills," he said. "We can support ourselves."

Roman is itching to get back into battle after a clash on the northern outskirts of Donetsk this month killed dozens.

Other skirmishes have seen Ukrainian troops surrender and leave behind their biggest guns after being outflanked by the rebels.

"We have a lot of weapons that we grabbed from the Ukrainians," Roman said. "They were running away and leaving them for us. That's enough to keep us fighting for a long time."

- 'A Russian world' -

An ethnic-Russian rebel commander who goes by the nom de guerre Abkhaz calls himself a patriot at heart.

"I came here to fight for a Russian world," Abkhaz said. "And if I did not feel Russia's support, I would not be here."

But he said he had no illusions that eastern Ukraine would suddenly become part of Russia.

"We are ready to remain unrecognised, the most important thing is independence," he said.

On the other side of the front is a Ukrainian fighter who is as determined as the rebel Roman.

Fartoviy -- a 40-year-old Ukrainian whose name translates as "the Lucky One" -- acknowledges that his forces are tired. But he added that they are willing to fight to the end.

"Yes, many are unhappy with our current president and the government's actions," he said. "But that does not mean we are ready to give up our land."

Fartoviy is also convinced that the separatists would never survive on their own.

"People there wouldn't be able to live without our help," he said. "There's nothing left there now: no factories, no work. And Russia only supplies them with weapons."

The animosity between the two sides seems as impossible to breach as when the war began in April 2014.

As Fartoviy put it: "We might be tired, but not one of my fellow fighters has given up and walked away."

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