Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists traded artillery fire today, each side hoping to secure territory ahead of a cease-fire set to go into effect hours from now.
As we reported earlier this week, the truce was forged during a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, the second such deal in six months. The previous cease-fire agreed in September quickly unraveled as fighting resumed around the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
Under the new agreement, fighting is to halt at midnight local time (5 p.m. ET).
Ahead of the appointed hour, Russia Today reports "warm, spring weather [in] Donetsk – as well as the sounds of mortar firings and explosions."
Associated Press reporters saw the artillery barrage near the town of Svitlodarsk as well as considerable movement of Ukrainian forces' armored vehicles and rocket launchers along the road. Shelling was also reportedly taking place in the coastal city of Mariupol.
The Guardian says the peace deal, which is meant to facilitate the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the battle zone and an exchange of prisoners, is being viewed with skepticism: "The agreement is clearly fragile, previous attempts at a truce have utterly failed, and expectations are high of an upsurge in fighting ahead of the Saturday deadline."
NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, reporting from Brussels, tells our Newscast unit that some feel the deal, reached after 16 hours of negotiations among the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, gives too much to Russia and the pro-Russian rebels.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said it had to be done to stop the fighting.
"We managed to get the sides to commit to the cease-fire and this wasn't an easy task," he said.
Eleanor says European leaders, who have already joined the U.S. in punishing economic sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine situation, are prepared to impose further sanctions on the Kremlin if the deal fails.
Speaking at a European Union summit in Brussels on Friday, European Council President Donald Tusk said European leaders are watching cautiously.
"Words put down on paper must translate into real deeds," Tusk said.
The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, tweeted satellite photos of what he said was Russian artillery near the town of Lomuvatka, about 12 miles northeast of Debaltseve. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Russia has repeatedly denied charges that it is arming the rebels.
The Wall Street Journal quotes Gennady Korban, a deputy governor of Ukraine's Dnipropetrovsk province who has managed defenses in the area, as saying a lasting peace is not in Moscow's interest:
"The Kremlin's long-run plan, he said, hasn't changed since last year: to destabilize Ukraine so that it can't pursue closer relations with the West.
"'So there will be some cease-fires and resumptions of fighting and so on,' he said. 'The most important thing is for us to prepare our defenses during the cease-fire.' "