Artillery exchanges pounded war-torn towns in eastern Ukraine on Friday, despite Russian leader Vladimir Putin unilaterally ordering his forces to halt attacks for 36 hours.
The brief ceasefire declared by Putin earlier this week was due to begin at 0900 GMT on Friday and would have been the first full pause since the February 2022 invasion of Moscow.
But AFP journalists heard both outgoing and incoming shells in the frontline town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine after the Russian ceasefire was supposed to start.
Moscow’s troops also attacked Ukraine’s second largest city, Kramatorsk, in the east, said the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration.
“Occupiers twice hit the city with rockets,” Kyrylo Tymoshenko said on social media, adding that an apartment building was hit but there were no casualties.
Putin’s order to halt fighting during the Orthodox Christmas holiday came after Moscow suffered its worst reported loss of life in the war and Ukraine’s allies pledged to send armored vehicles and a second Patriot air defense battery to help Kyiv.
– Ceasefire “not serious” –
Tymoshenko earlier said Moscow’s forces hit the southern city of Kherson in an attack that killed and wounded several people.
“You talk about a ceasefire. We are at war with that,” Tymoshenko said.
However, the Russian Defense Ministry said it respected its unilateral ceasefire and accused Ukrainian forces of continued shelling.
Both countries are celebrating an Orthodox Christmas and the Russian leader’s order came after calls for a ceasefire from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s spiritual leader Patriarch Kirill, a staunch Putin supporter.
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Ukraine had already dismissed the halt – which was due to last until late Saturday (2100 GMT) – as a strategy by Russia to buy time to regroup its forces and bolster its defenses after a series of battlefield reversals.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the unilateral ceasefire “cannot and should not be taken seriously,” while a close adviser said Russia “must leave the occupied territories” for hostilities to truly subside.
US President Joe Biden was equally dismissive, saying Putin was just trying to “find some oxygen.”
Since the invasion began on February 24 last year, Russia has occupied parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, but Kyiv has reclaimed parts of its territory and this week has called for a New Year’s strike that has killed scores of Moscow troops.
The Kremlin said Thursday that Putin told the Turkish leader during a phone call with Erdogan that Moscow is ready for dialogue if Kyiv recognizes “new territorial realities”.
He was referring to Russia’s claim to have annexed four regions of Ukraine, including Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson regions – although they did not fully control them.
In Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, dozens of civilians gathered at a building used as a base for disbursing humanitarian aid, where less than an hour after the ceasefire went into effect, volunteers organized a Christmas Eve celebration, handing out tangerines, apples and biscuits.
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The streets of the largely bombed city were mostly empty except for military vehicles. The shelling was lighter on Friday than in recent days.
Pavlo Diachenko, a police officer in Bakhmut, said he doubted the ceasefire would mean much to the city’s civilians, even if it had been respected.
“What can a church holiday mean to you? They are shelling every day and night and people are getting killed almost every day,” he said.
Kirill, 76, appealed for the truce “to allow Orthodox people to attend services on Christmas Eve and the day of the Nativity,” he told the church’s official website Thursday.
But on the streets of Kyiv, there was widespread skepticism about the gesture.
“You can never trust them, never… They don’t keep what they promise,” said Olena Fedorenko, a 46-year-old from the war-torn city of Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine.
– More weapons for Ukraine –
News of Putin’s ceasefire order came as Germany and the United States pledged to provide additional military aid to Kyiv, with Biden saying the promised equipment comes at a “critical juncture” in the war.
Washington and Berlin said in a joint statement that they will supply Kyiv with Bradley and Marder infantry fighting vehicles, respectively.
Putin’s ceasefire order came a day after Moscow increased its reported toll to 89 dead in its worst single reported loss to a Ukrainian strike.
ALSO READ: Russia Says Number of Strikes in Ukraine Rises to 89
Ukraine’s military strategic communications unit said nearly 400 Russian soldiers died in the eastern Ukraine town of Makiivka, which is being held by pro-Russian forces. Russian commentators have said the death toll could be far higher than the Kremlin’s figures.