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Ukraine Cease-Fire Largely Holds, Despite Shelling Reports


The cease-fire in eastern Ukraine appears to be holding, mostly. There are reports today of artillery fire and shelling around Debaltseve. Karoun Demirjian is a reporter for The Washington Post. She joins us from just outside of Debaltseve. Karoun, what is the situation there right now?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN: Well, like you said, there has been a cease-fire that was declared at midnight on Sunday. And mostly that has been observed around the conflict zone area. But in Debaltseve - I'm outside of Debaltseve right now, but you can hear that in the area around Debaltseve, there has been artillery fire. You can hear shelling still. It's not as constant as it was yesterday, when you could hear it more frequently, but it still exists. And so that is kind of evidence that what people are warning about - because in the 24 hours leading up to the cease-fire, there were warnings issued by the rebels that they were not going to necessarily observe the cease-fire on Debaltseve - is actually happening. It does not appear that the cease-fire has been fully observed in that location.

RATH: Karoun, what is that noise that we're hearing in the background there?

DEMIRJIAN: I'm sitting in a fairly open area right now on the floor of a hotel. And there are various soldiers - various members of the military kind of going in and out of their rooms. I think the majority of the ones here are, you know, formally members of Ukrainian military, especially just given the arrangement of how that works in this particular city - in Artyomovsk.

RATH: Now, there've also been reports that thousands of Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve were surrounded by separatist forces. What can you tell us about that?

DEMIRJIAN: Debaltseve's strategic because it's a rail hub, and so it's kind of a prize. If you can rebuild the infrastructure after the fighting is done, it can be used for whoever ends up being in control of it. But right now, you've got the soldiers that are basically surrounded on all sides by Russian separatist who don't want to give up the city. And the soldiers don't want to surrender, which is the offer that the separatists made them - surrender, and we'll let you out. So you're stuck, and it's not clear how long you're stuck.

RATH: The other part of the cease-fire agreement is that both sides pull back and create a demilitarized buffer zone starting on Monday. Does it look like that's going to happen?

DEMIRJIAN: Given that the shelling is still being occasionally heard around the Debaltseve area, it's difficult to say if they're going to be able to stop that and turn it around in the next day. As - I saw it myself today that there were, you know, armored personnel carriers and multiple rocket launchers going from Artyomovsk towards Debaltseve - Ukrainian military ones.

And I didn't follow them all the way to the front. We can't get that far right now. But, you know, why would you be going in that direction if you're doing a pullback of heavy weaponry 24 hours later? It's certainly possible. It's just 30 miles. But it seems like right now, around Debaltseve, the direction is not as intensively locked in as it was for the last few weeks, but it doesn't seem like people are letting go.

So what you may very well see is the cease-fire working in every other area of the front line, and just not working here. And, of course, the following question is if it doesn't work in one place, does it hold - can it actually hold every place else, or does it start to fall apart?

RATH: Have you had the chance to spend time with people who have, you know, basically had this experience of this first day of not fighting, and what it's that like for them?

DEMIRJIAN: Honestly, I haven't spoken with a single person today that believes that this is going to last. The soldiers are all very, very skeptical. They think that this is just time to regroup, basically, and that they're going to be having to fight this out - potentially even worse, potentially against, you know, stronger separatist forces who they believe are backed by the - by Russia.

I haven't been able to get to the rebel side yet, so I can't speak as to what the attitude is on that side. But certainly skepticism reigns supreme right now because they just think that in another week, they'll be back on the battlefield. And past experience gives them reason, you know. There was a Minsk cease-fire agreement in early September. And it was spoken about for the next four months, but it didn't really hold on the ground.

RATH: Karoun Demirjian is of The Washington Post, speaking from outside of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine. Karoun, thanks very much.

DEMIRJIAN: You're welcome. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.