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Fighting Continues In Ukraine, Despite Ceasefire

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This was the week Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government were supposed to stop fighting and pull back the heavy artillery. That was just one part of the cease-fire deal brokered last week by European leaders. The goal was to end the conflict in Ukraine which has left some 5,600 people dead and up to a million more people displaced. Despite the agreement, fighting has continued over one eastern Ukrainian town that both sides claim is on their side of the cease-fire line, Debaltseve. To talk more about this is Karoun Demirjian, writer for The Washington Post. Begin by telling us where you are.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN: Right now I'm talking to you from downtown Artemivsk, which is a city that's about 30 miles northwest of Debaltseve. This has become basically the triage point for all of the activity that's happening with the efforts to free these soldiers that are trapped in the city. My hotel is basically mostly occupied at this point by many members of the Ukrainian military who are in a holding pattern as we wait to see what's going to happen in the situation in Debaltseve - if it's going to break one way or another finally in the next few days.

CORNISH: Who does have control of the city right now - the Ukrainian government or these Russian separatists?

DEMIRJIAN: Well, at this point the pro-Russian separatists have all but encircled the city. There have been a few soldiers that have been able to sneak out. There was a convoy that managed to sneak out right after the cease-fire was declared Sunday at midnight. A few other soldiers have been able to get out through the fields. But effectively, movement in and out of the city for the Ukrainian side has been limited to almost zero. The Ukrainian government is not willing to hand over any of the city or admit great losses. They did acknowledge to some extent that they have lost parts of the city today, but for the most part they're saying, it's OK, we're still holding our position.

CORNISH: Tells us a little bit more about the city in terms of its strategic importance. Why are both sides fighting over it?

DEMIRJIAN: Well, Debaltseve lies along a road that connects Luhansk and Donetsk, which are the two main cities - also the two main regions that the rebels are trying to claim as separate from Kiev. It's also a rail hub, and it's a rail hub that connects the two regions and also connects a lot of coal towns in the region. So it's both geographically and economically very, very important and a big prize to whoever ends up taking the city in the end.

CORNISH: How is the cease-fire holding up in other disputed regions of Ukraine?

DEMIRJIAN: For the most part, it's holding up okay. There have been some cease-fire violation accusations around Mariupol to the east where there have been fights that have happened. Around the Donetsk airport there's still been some accusations of cease-fire breaches. But really, even those are nothing like what's going on in Debaltseve where you - it's just constant. You can hear the shelling happening when you wake up in the morning, and you can hear it well into the afternoon, and you can hear it as it gets dark, too. It's not a random thing. It's a pretty consistent thing in Debaltseve which is why everybody - Ukraine, rebel side and all of the international leaders who brokered this deal in Minsk keep focusing on this and wringing their hands over it.

CORNISH: So could the fighting over Debaltseve actually jeopardize the rest of the cease-fire deal?

DEMIRJIAN: That is the question. At this point, neither side seems to want to say the cease-fire is entirely dead because it's not clearly being adhered to in Debaltseve. But if this keeps going and it keeps getting worse as it is, it's certainly a risk that the whole cease-fire could unravel if either side decides that they want to say, you know what? It's dead entirely because it's so clearly dead here.

CORNISH: That's Karoun Demirjian who's been covering Ukraine for The Washington Post. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

DEMIRJIAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.