- Putin orders a ceasefire in observance of the Russian Orthodox Christmas
- Ukraine says Russia is trying to buy time to rearm
- Missiles hit Kramatorsk and Kherson before the armistice
NEAR KREMINA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanged artillery fire on the front line in Ukraine on Friday, even after Moscow said it had ordered its forces to cease fire for a unilateral truce that Kyiv has vehemently rejected.
President Vladimir Putin ordered a 36-hour ceasefire from midday Friday to celebrate the Russian Orthodox Christmas. Ukraine has said it has no intention of stopping the fighting, dismissing the alleged truce as an attempt by Moscow to buy time to reinforce forces that suffered heavy losses this week.
“Any ceasefire? Do you hear?” said a Ukrainian soldier using the nom de guerre Vyshnya, as an explosion rang out in the distance on the front line near Kreminna in eastern Ukraine. “What do they want to achieve if they keep shooting? We know, we’ve been taught not to trust them.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry said its forces began observing the ceasefire as of noon Moscow time (0900 GMT) “along the entire line of contact,” but said Ukraine continued to bomb populated areas and military positions.
Reuters heard explosions from what Ukrainian forces on the front line described as Russian missile strikes. The Ukrainians returned fire from the tanks.
Ukrainian forces said it was quieter than on many other days because the snowy weather made it difficult to fly drones and identify targets. But they saw no sign of a ceasefire on the part of the Russians.
One of them said, covering his face with a handkerchief: “Today the situation is exactly the same as it was yesterday, the day before yesterday, last week and last month.” “It is useless to talk to them, to believe in their promises, orders and decisions.”
It was not immediately possible to determine whether there was any decrease in fighting in other locations.
A witness in Donetsk, the capital of the Russian-occupied region near the front, also described artillery fire fired from pro-Russian positions on the outskirts of the city after the armistice was supposed to take effect.
The Ukrainian front-line governor in the eastern Luhansk region, Serhiy Hayday, said that in the first three hours of the alleged ceasefire, the Russians bombed Ukrainian positions 14 times and stormed a single settlement three times.
“Orthodox murderers wish you a Merry Christmas,” he wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
US OFFERS BRADLEYS
On Friday, the White House was set to reveal details of its latest $3 billion military aid package to Ukraine, including for the first time Bradley Fighting Victors, workers for the US military.
It was a maximum of a week that Germany and France also announced plans to send armored vehicles, finally fulfilling one of Kyiv’s most persistent requests from its allies, for armor to defeat Russian tanks in mechanized battles.
The US package also includes Sea Sparrow air defense missiles, and the German package includes Patriot missiles, which Washington presented last month.
Shortly before the ceasefire began, missiles hit a residential building in Kramatorsk, near the eastern front line, destroying 14 homes, although there were no casualties as many people fled.
“It’s bad, very bad,” said Oleksnader, 36, outside a supermarket at the time of the attack. “We need to pressure them, get them to leave, maybe more air defense systems will help. It happens a lot, not just on ceremonial occasions. Every day.”
The governor of the province said one rescue worker was killed and four others injured when Russian forces bombed a fire department in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson before a deadline in the early hours of Friday morning. Reuters could not immediately verify this.
Christmas as a cover
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has dismissed Russia’s out-of-control ceasefire as a ploy for Russia to buy time after suffering crippling losses on the front line.
“Now they want to use Christmas as a cover, if only for a short time, to stop the advance of our boys… and bring equipment, ammunition and forces massed near our positions,” Zelensky said in his video address Thursday night.
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 that it has ever admitted to its forces.
Despite the truce, pro-Russian officials have indicated that they will continue to fight if Ukraine does so. Denis Pushlin, the Russian leader in Donetsk, said on Thursday that Putin’s orders only covered offensive operations and that his forces would respond if fired upon.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, starting a war that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions of Ukrainians. With arms and financial support from the United States and Europe, Ukraine has expelled Russia from some of its lands, but battles are raging in the east and south.
The Ukrainian army’s general staff said its soldiers had repelled repeated Russian attacks over the past day, with Moscow focused on trying to capture towns in Donetsk.
“The enemy is concentrating its main efforts on attempts to establish control over the Donetsk region,” the General Staff said in a statement, to no avail, adding that both Ukraine and Russia had launched several air strikes over the past day.
The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 7. The main Orthodox Church in Ukraine rejected Moscow’s authority, and many Ukrainian believers changed their calendar to celebrate Christmas on December 25, as in the West.
Reporting by Reuters offices. Written by Peter Graf. Editing by Angus McSwan, Nick McPhee and Grant McCall
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