Rivals try to give peace a chance on east Ukraine frontline

A boy walk next to hole caused by recent shel

The flags of Russia, Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists flutter over a water tower building on one of the few stretches of the frontline in eastern Ukraine where peace has broken out.
On one side of the village of Krasny Partyzan (Red Partisan), Ukrainian forces guard a checkpoint with an armored personnel carrier by the main road. On the other side, two km (one mile) outside the village, the pro-Russian separatists they are fighting stand at a checkpoint of heavy concrete blocks.


Fighting has stopped in the area under a Sept. 5 ceasefire, unlike in many other places where the truce is punctured by daily artillery exchanges.


Alexander Khodakovsky, a top separatist commander, describes Krasny Partyzan as a "unique place", an example to follow after talks began this week on arranging new truces in the east to shore up the three-month-old ceasefire.


"We have the technical and military means to take out this (Ukrainian) checkpoint. But we've allowed it to stay to show that normal, peaceful agreements and understandings are possible," Khodakovsky said.


Until recently only the Russian tricolor and Ukraine's yellow and blue flag flew above the water tower at Krasny Partyzan, a small cluster of one-story buildings.

Then someone removed the Ukrainian flag and replaced it with the black, blue and red banner pf the rebels' self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR).

"At night we climbed up and put the Ukrainian flag back - but we left the separatist flag," said a Ukrainian soldier who asked to be identified by his nom de guerre, "Mers".

Leaving their enemy's flag up was a gesture to the separatist forces - and an acknowledgement of the reality of the situation on the ground.

"We have a truce. And the DNR people have their families here. That is why they don't shoot," Mers said.

The main road near Krasny Partyzan, 20 km (12 miles) north of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, divides the separatist-held and government-controlled territories and is considered neutral.

"We don't want war, just as they don't," a rebel who gave his name as Rom said at the separatists' checkpoint. "We don't shoot at them because they don't shoot at us."


It is a different story elsewhere in the east as winter starts. The death toll is now more than 4,300 since the uprising began in April, soon after Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula following the overthrow of a Moscow-backed president in Kiev.

The two sides were supposed to mark out a 30-km (19-mile) wide buffer zone to put the government and separatist forces out of striking distance of each other.

The Sept. 5 ceasefire deal also foresaw the sides pulling out large-caliber artillery and other heavy weapons, and removing mines, to create the buffer zone.

In preparation for work starting to withdraw equipment from the buffer zone, the two sides have agreed to try to stick to a genuine truce in a "Day of Silence" on Dec. 9 - itself a tacit admission that the existing ceasefire is not enough.

But even now the border area is being fortified inside what should be the buffer zone.

Reuters reporters recently saw the Ukrainian military knocking in wooden poles and putting up razor wire in fields near a checkpoint to the west of the village of Mary just outside Donetsk.

The line of contact has become a de facto division cementing the separatists' grip on territory, and underlines the Ukrainian government's inability to exert control there. Kiev has cut off state funding to rebel-controlled areas.

A "joint center" was set up by Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The ONCE has monitors in Ukraine to check on the ceasefire, but doing so is hard due to the lack of a clear mandate and armored vehicles.

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