Ukraine accuses rebels of breaking truce as Western concern rises

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Ukraine's military on Monday accused pro-Moscow rebels of breaking a new ceasefire deal barely hours after it came into effect, as Western powers warned Russia over its actions in the former Soviet state.

One soldier was killed and another wounded in fighting in the country's separatist east despite the new truce that started at midnight, the army said.

The latest attempt to silence the guns in Ukraine was agreed after more than 30 people were killed in a sharp uptick of violence this month between government forces and Russian-backed separatists.

But the deal, announced on Saturday after the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France held talks in Munich, remained fragile.

- 'Hold Russia accountable' -

US Vice President Mike Pence, visiting Brussels to reassure European allies over the Trump administration's commitment to transatlantic ties, said Washington will "continue to hold Russia accountable" for the violence in eastern Ukraine.

It would also demand that Moscow honour the internationally-brokered Minsk agreements aimed at bringing peace after 34 months of conflict, he said.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that US President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, a business associate and a Ukrainian lawmaker had drawn up a peace plan for called for a referendum on whether to "lease" the strategic Crimean peninsula to Russia.

It said the proposal, which outlined a way for Washington to lift sanctions against Russia, essentially required the withdrawal of all Russian forces from eastern Ukraine.

Russia seized Crimea in March 2014 amid the turmoil that followed the ouster of Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych after months of pro-EU protests.

Germany, one of the most powerful mediators trying to resolve the conflict, on Monday also criticised as "unacceptable" Russia's decision to recognise passports issued by the separatists in the eastern Lugansk and Donetsk regions.

Both Ukraine and the West -- which has imposed sanctions on Russia as a result of the unrest -- say the rebel regions receive humanitarian and military backing from Moscow, although Russia has not until now officially recognised them.

Kiev on Monday accused separatist fighters of persistent shelling often with heavy weaponry.

"The occupying forces continue to shell our positions on all fronts," Ukrainian military spokesman Leonid Matyukhin said, announcing the latest casualties.

But Eduard Basurin, spokesman for the rebels' self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic said the truce had largely held since midnight.

"It is possible to say that there were almost no attacks," he told AFP.

The agreement brought renewed hope of a relief to the conflict which has cost nearly 10,000 lives since April 2014.

Violence earlier this month saw about 30 soldiers and civilians killed in the flashpoint town of Avdiivka.

The clashes have cast a shadow over the possibility of a withdrawal of heavy weapons from the volatile frontline, a move that was agreed by the warring sides on Wednesday in line with a tattered peace plan.

- 'Unacceptable' move -

Under the Minsk plan -- agreed in the Belarussian capital in 2015 -- the adversaries are meant to withdraw their big guns to create a buffer zone along the frontline.

Both sides have repeatedly violated the Minsk agreement and little progress has been made towards a political resolution of the conflict.

In another sign that tensions are far from easing, Moscow on Saturday signed a decree recognising passports issued by rebel authorities in the Donetsk and Lugansk separatist "republics".

The decree, signed by President Vladimir Putin, was described by Moscow as "temporary" until a "political solution" is found to the war.

But Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko blasted it as "fresh proof of the Russian occupation and violations by Russia of international law".

He said it was "highly symbolic" that it was published while he was meeting Pence on Saturday in Munich.

Germany also criticised Russia's move.

"The recognition of travel documents of the self-declared, so-called people's republics of Lugansk and Donetsk undermines the unity of Ukraine," said Chancellor Angela Merkel's top spokesman Steffen Seibert.

"It directly contradicts everything that was agreed in Minsk (peace talks) and is therefore unacceptable."

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