A ceasefire agreed between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia separatists has come into force, the first step in a peace plan aimed at ending 10 months of conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The truce officially started at 2200 GMT on Saturday night, but a surge in fighting in the run-up to the ceasefire has cast doubt on whether it will be respected.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Donetsk, told of heavy shelling in the rebel-controlled area earlier in the day.
He quoted a separatist commander as saying “things are going to go crazy tonight” just hours before the ceasefire kicked in at midnight local time.
He said at least seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 23 others wounded in Saturday’s violence.
“It seems that both sides are trying to consolidate their positions,” our correspondent said.
Under the terms of the deal, approved on Thursday during talks between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France in Minks, Belarus, the rival sides have two days from the start of the truce to start pulling back heavy weapons from the frontline.
The peace plan is seen as the best hope of ending the violence that has claimed at least 5,480 lives since April, but scepticism remains high after the collapse of a similar previous deal.
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Minutes before the ceasefire, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko gave a speech where he ordered his military forces to abide by the agreement.
But earlier, he expressed pessimism about the prospects for the ceasefire deal.
“Unfortunately after the Minsk agreement, Russia’s offensive has significantly increased. We still think that the agreement is in great danger,” Poroshenko said during a meeting with Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister.
On Saturday, intense fighting persisted around the strategic government-held railway hub of Debaltseve, in the eastern part of Ukraine, which has been besieged by separatist forces.
In an inauspicious omen for the prospects of any cessation of hostilities, the separatists have said they will not consider any battles for the town to be a violation of the ceasefire, the Associated Press news agency reported.
Hours before the ceasefire took effect, US President Barack Obama spoke to the leaders of Ukraine and Germany, during which he stressed the need for all sides to halt the violence.