- Putin ordered a ceasefire for the celebration of Orthodox Christmas
- Ukraine claims that Russia is trying to buy time to rearm
- Rockets hit Kramatorsk, Kherson before the ceasefire
KYIV/KRAMATORSK, Ukraine, Jan 6 (Reuters) – Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanged artillery fire on the front line in Ukraine on Friday, even after Moscow said it had ordered its troops to stop firing for a unilateral ceasefire that was firmly rejected by Kyiv.
President Vladimir Putin ordered a 36-hour ceasefire from midday on Friday to mark Orthodox Christmas. Kyiv has said it has no intention of stopping the fighting, dismissing the alleged truce as a ploy by Moscow to buy time to reinforce troops that have suffered heavy casualties this week.
Russia’s defense ministry said its troops began observing the ceasefire from noon Moscow time (0900 GMT) “along the entire contact line” in the conflict, but said Ukraine continued to shell settlements and military positions.
Reuters journalists on the front lines in eastern Ukraine heard explosions that Ukrainian troops said were incoming Russian missile fire. The Ukrainians said it had been a relatively calm day on that part of the front, but that was not because of the ceasefire but because of the snowy weather, which made drones impossible to operate and artillery targets harder to spot.
It was not immediately possible to determine whether there was any reduction in the intensity of fighting elsewhere.
A witness in the Russian-occupied regional capital of Donetsk, close to the frontline, also described incoming artillery fired from pro-Russian positions on the outskirts of the city after the truce was due to take effect.
In the hours before that, rockets hit a residential building in the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk near the eastern frontline, damaging 14 houses but causing no casualties, the mayor said. Residents described several explosions.
“It’s bad, very bad,” Oleksnadr, 36, said outside a supermarket at the time of the attack. “We need to pressure them, make them go away, maybe more air defense systems would help. This happens often, not only on festive occasions. Every other day.”
One rescuer was killed and four others were wounded when Russian forces shelled a fire station in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson ahead of a deadline early Friday, the regional governor said. Reuters could not immediately confirm this.
Putin ordered a 36-hour ceasefire in the 10-month war in a surprise move on Thursday, saying it would last until the end of Russian Orthodox Christmas on Saturday.
CHRISTMAS AS A COVER
But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky dismissed the immediate ceasefire as a ploy by Russia to buy time after suffering crippling losses on the front line.
“Now they want to use Christmas as a cover, even if only for a short time, to stop the advance of our guys … and bring equipment, ammunition and mobilized troops closer to our positions,” Zelensky said in a video address on Thursday evening.
Russia has suffered heavy losses in recent days, including dozens of soldiers killed on New Year’s Eve in the deadliest incident of the war, which it has credited to its own troops.
Shortly after the ceasefire was due to take effect, Russian-backed officials accused Ukraine of shelling Donetsk with artillery, Russian state news agency TASS reported.
Pro-Russian officials have indicated they will continue to fight if Ukraine does so. Denis Pushilin, the Russian-appointed leader in Donetsk, said Thursday that Putin’s order covered only offensive operations and that his forces would fight back if they came under fire.
Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-appointed administrator of Ukraine’s Kherson region, described the ceasefire as a “gesture of goodwill” but said the situation on the front line would not change because of it.
In Kyiv, the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine opened the Orthodox Christmas celebrations with a church service at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Kyiv, dedicated to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Andriy Rehnyuk, a 43-year-old Ukrainian soldier who attends church, dismissed the ceasefire as “plain nonsense”.
“What ceasefire? They should probably get some rest,” he said of the Russians. “Forget the truce. But 2023 will be the year of our victory.”
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, starting a war that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions of Ukrainians. With arms and financial support from the United States and Europe, Ukraine has pushed Russia out of some of its territory, but fighting rages to the east and south.
In a major breakthrough for Kyiv, its Western allies this week finally announced the delivery of a large number of armored fighting vehicles that Kyiv has been demanding for months for mechanized battles against Russian tanks on the frontline.
Germany says it will supply advanced Patriot anti-aircraft missile system and about 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles within three months. Washington to send Bradley Fighting Vehicles as part of new $2.8 billion security package should be officially unveiled on Friday. France also announced a package of armored vehicles.
Ukraine’s military general staff said its troops had repelled multiple Russian attacks in the past day, as Moscow focused on its efforts to capture towns in Donetsk.
“The enemy is concentrating its main efforts on trying to establish control over the Donetsk region” without success, the General Staff said in a statement, adding that Ukraine and Russia had carried out multiple airstrikes in the past day.
US President Joe Biden suggested that Putin’s ceasefire offer was a sign of desperation: “I think he’s trying to find some oxygenhe told reporters at the White House.
The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 7. Ukraine’s main Orthodox Church has rejected Moscow’s authority, and many Ukrainian believers have shifted their calendar to celebrate Christmas on December 25, as in the West.
In his evening speech, Zelensky switched to Russian instead of Ukrainian to address Russians. Ending the war meant “ending your country’s aggression… And the war will end either when your soldiers leave or we throw them out.”
Reporting from the Reuters bureaus Writing by Frank Jack Daniel and Peter Graff; Editing by Angus McSwan and Nick McPhee
Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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