Defiant president rallies workers 
in key Ukraine battleground city

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Ukraine’s president made a surprise trip to a key city in south-eastern Ukraine as a ceasefire between Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian troops appeared to be largely holding.

President Petro Poroshenko addressed workers at a large metal plant in the embattled coastal city of Mariupol – a symbolic show of strength in a strategic government-held area that has come under rebel fire in recent days.

His appearance underscored that Kiev is unlikely to willingly loosen what remains of its grip over the rebellious east.

“This city was, is, and will be Ukrainian,” Mr Poroshenko told hundreds of factory workers from a stage decorated with the blue and yellow colours of his country’s flag.

“Mariupol proved that we won’t let anybody burn our city to the ground,” he said, emphasising that in east Ukraine “our most important resource is people”.

As Mr Poroshenko addressed the crowd in hard hats, a shaky peace appeared to reign over much of east Ukraine. The city council of Donetsk said there had been no reported casualties overnight, and no shelling or explosions were heard in the morning in central Donetsk.

In Luhansk, another rebel-held eastern city that has seen some of the worst clashes, the city council said there was no fighting for the third night in a row.

Colonel Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security Council, said no serviceman had been killed in the past day, and rebel forces had stopped using heavy artillery and were only using mortar and rifle fire.

“That’s a big achievement,” he said. “We understand that the ceasefire imposes some discipline to our enemies and also allows our military to bring its reserves closer.”

But Col Lysenko told reporters the rebels had violated the ceasefire half a dozen times. A Donetsk city council spokesman later said residents had called in about an explosion in the city.

A successful ceasefire would be a landmark achievement for all sides in a conflict that has dragged on for nearly five months and claimed at least 3,000 lives, according to a UN estimate issued on Monday.

But despite the ceasefire, there has been little agreement between Kiev and the separatist rebels on a political settlement that would permanently end the standoff in eastern Ukraine.

The south east has been a key hotspot. The area around Mariupol had remained relatively untouched by violence until the last two weeks, when rebel forces pushed towards the city, shelling the city’s outskirts as recently as Saturday.

The port is strategically located on the Sea of Azov, raising fears that if it fell, Moscow-backed rebels could link up mainland Russia with Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia in March. The move would cost Ukraine another huge chunk of its coastline and the mineral riches the Sea of Azov is expected to yield.

In other developments, 15 Ukrainian soldiers were released by rebel forces, the Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported. Col Lysenko said a prisoner exchange with the rebels was “task No 1” for the government during the ceasefire.

The truce began late on Friday but was thrown into peril over the weekend by the shelling of Mariupol and fighting near the airport of the rebel-held city of Donetsk.