Guns fall silent in flashpoint Ukraine town

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Avdiivka (Ukraine) (AFP) - The guns fell quiet in a flashpoint eastern Ukrainian town Sunday after a week-long surge in violence that prompted US President Donald Trump to pledge to help bring peace to the European Union's backyard.

The Ukrainian military said late Sunday that no soldiers had been killed in the past 24 hours for the first time since fighting over the blue-collar town of Avdiivka soared last Sunday.

A total of 27 people have died in the battered town, while eight more have been killed in other parts of the war zone that covers the separatist fiefdoms of Lugansk and Donetsk in Ukraine's eastern rustbelt.

AFP reporters said the streets of Avdiivka were quiet and no shelling could be heard from the outskirts where both sides have their big guns stationed.

Ukrainian military spokesman Sergiy Klymenko told AFP in Avdiivka that a pause in hostilities agreed by the two sides came into effect at 8:00 am (0600 GMT).

But he stressed that it was only a verbal deal and not a written commitment.

"We are still a long way off a complete ceasefire," added Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, a Ukraine military spokesman in Kiev.

Klymenko said the truce was aimed at allowing workers to repair broken power lines after many in the town of 25,000 -- nearly 300 of whom have been evacuated -- spent days without power or heat and only limited supplies of water.

"Yes! At last there is lighting in Avdiivka!" Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on Facebook.

Nearly all the town's residents work in a giant coke plant that supplies much of he electricity in Ukraine's east.

- Different spins -

Poroshenko's first conversation with the new US leader since his inauguration took place as the impoverished former Soviet republic worries that Trump is seeking to build a friendship with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Some analysts say they believe this potential improvement in relations with Moscow had emboldened the rebels and was behind the upsurge in fighting in Avdiivka.

Others attributed it to a battle for power within the insurgent movement and the right for its warlords to brag about who staged the biggest attack.

Trump used Saturday's call to promise to work toward an end to the war, but appeared to stop short of offering the sort of staunch backing Ukraine enjoyed under the administration of president Barack Obama.

"We will work with Ukraine, Russia, and all other parties involved to help them restore peace along the border," the White House quoted Trump as saying.

Washington also said the two leaders had a "good call" but provided few other details except to note that a meeting between Trump and Poroshenko was in the works.

Poroshenko himself put a more positive spin on the conversation, with a statement from his office thanking Trump for his "firm support of Ukraine?s sovereignty and territorial integrity".

It said the two men expressed "deep concern" about the spike in fighting in Avdiivka and underscored the need for an "immediate ceasefire".

The Ukrainian presidency also said they "spoke in favour of energising dialogue at all levels with the new US administration".

All those comments were absent in the release issued by the White House.

The talks follow Trump's phone conversation with Putin on January 28 that both sides described as constructive.

- 'Aggressive actions' -

The 33-month conflict erupted shortly after Ukraine ousted its Russian-backed leader in February 2014.

Moscow responded by annexing Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in March 2014 before allegedly plotting the eastern insurgency to keep Ukraine under its thumb.

Washington's UN ambassador Nikki Haley on Thursday condemned Russia's "aggressive actions" in Ukraine -- a surprising attack given Trump's warm words for Putin.

Russia denies any responsibility for the unrest and blames the United States for igniting the three months of huge street protests that turned Ukraine toward the West.

The entire conflict has claimed more than 10,000 lives and become one of Europe's bloodiest crises since the 1990s Balkans wars.

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