Rebels ‘shell Ukrainian positions 
fifty times in breach of ceasefire’

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Separatist rebels fired on Ukrainian positions nearly 50 times over the past day, according to the Ukrainian military, despite a ceasefire that was called into effect five days ago.

Lt Col Anatoliy Stelmakh said the village of Kurakhovo, west of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, was hit by fire from Grad rockets and that the village of Berdyansk near the port city of Mariupol was hit by artillery and mortar fire during the night.

After Ukrainian forces withdrew this week from the city of Debaltseve, concern has arisen about whether rebels would aim to take Mariupol. The city lies on the Sea of Azov between mainland Russia and the Russia-annexed Crimean peninsula.

Taking the city could allow the rebels to create a land bridge between Russia and Crimea, which now have no direct links.

On Thursday, the rebels celebrated their victory over Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve, a key transport hub linking the two largest rebel strongholds. Rebel fighters roamed the town’s debris-littered streets, laughing, hugging and posing for photos, although the death of one fighter when his vehicle hit a land mine was a reminder of dangers still lurking.

Ukrainian soldiers who made it out of Debaltseve alive described weeks of harrowing rebel shelling, followed by a chaotic, hasty retreat. Ukrainian officials said 13 soldiers had been killed and 157 injured in the fighting, with 90 taken prisoner and 82 missing – but the shell-shocked soldiers themselves spoke of many more casualties.

“Starting at night, they would fire at us just to stop us from sleeping. They did this all night,” a Ukrainian soldier named Andrei said after fleeing Debaltseve. “Then in the morning, they would attack, wave after wave. They did this constantly for three weeks.”

The war in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 5,600 people and forced over a million to flee their homes since fighting began last April, a month after Russia annexed Crimea.

Russia denies arming the rebels or supplying fighters, but Western nations and Nato point to satellite pictures of Russian military equipment in eastern Ukraine.

French and German leaders, who oversaw marathon peace talks last week between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine, signalled yesterday they were determined to salvage the ceasefire agreement.