Eastern Ukraine Torn By Allegations Of Cease-Fire Violations

Government forces and separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine are each blaming the other for alleged violations of a cease-fire announced Friday. NPR's Arun Rath speaks with correspondent Corey Flintoff in Kiev about how the conflict is playing out on the ground.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Now to eastern Ukraine, where the cease-fire, announced by President Poroshenko, has been tested by intermittent fighting. Government forces and separatist rebels are each blaming the other for alleged violations. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke out in support of the peace process today. But Russia is reported to be building up its forces near the border. NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us now to talk about the situation on the ground. And, Corey, let's start with these claims about cease-fire violations. The cease-fire was just announced on Friday, but we're already hearing about fighting overnight last night.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Yeah, that's true. The Ukrainian government is claiming that separatists have attacked some of their military bases and posts along the Ukrainian border. The rebels say they were attacked by government forces just this morning in a town north of Donetsk. But a lot of this is really hard to verify even when you're on the scene.

I went up to a border post not far from Luhansk yesterday, and it had clearly been asked just the day before. You know, there were bullet holes in the windows. Part of the roof had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. And there was no sign of any Ukrainian border guards or officials. But we got such conflicting stories from the separatists who are in the area and and from witnesses that we talked to at the scene, that in the end, we couldn't figure out who had started the attack and exactly what had happened there.

So I guess the lesson to me is that there may be a basis for all of these claims of cease-fire violations, but it's really hard to establish who's at fault. You know, what seems to be important now is that we're only hearing about incidents and not about sustained battles.

RATH: Now, President Putin was critical of the cease-fire process just a few days ago. But today, as we mentioned, he sounded supportive. Does that seem to be a significant change?

FLINTOFF: It does. It was during a speech today, in Moscow, and Putin said he welcomed the cease-fire. But he went further, and he said the two sides need to negotiate a compromise. It would be a compromise that would guarantee the rights of Russian-speaking people in the East. And here's what's new - he said it should make them feel that they're an integral part of their own country. Now, that sounds like Putin has no intention of making them part of Russia as he did with the Russian-speaking people in Crimea.

RATH: And another concern for Ukraine - NATO officials say there's been a new buildup of a Russian forces near the border. What do we know about that?

FLINTOFF: Well, Russia has acknowledged moving some troops back into the region. And Russian military officials say they're there to beef up Russia's border controls. Now, NATO says the way that those troops are deployed just isn't consistent with border controls. But Russia does have some concerns. One is that fighting between the government and the separatists is taking place right on the border. Another thing is that there's a refugee crisis underway. Kiev and the separatists disagree as to the extent of it, but the fact is that, you know, people are being displaced by the fighting and by their fears for their own safety. And some of them are crossing into Russia.

RATH: Well, what have you heard from these people who are on the move? Are they saying this is a temporary thing, or are they trying to get away for a long time?

FLINTOFF: Overwhelmingly, I'd say that everyone I talked with wanted to go back to their homes in eastern Ukraine. You know, they've had offers of help from Russia, and on the Ukrainian side there are various NGOs that are trying to help them. But people don't want to leave their homes.

At that border post yesterday, I talked with a man and his wife who were crossing the border on foot. It was raining. He's a big, burly guy - probably in his 50s, and he started to tear up. I was asking him about the situation there. And he said, you see a man crying, that tells you what I think about the situation.

RATH: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff on the line from Ukraine's capital, Keiv. Corey, thank you.

FLINTOFF: It's a pleasure.

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