DONETSK, Ukraine (AFP) - The ceasefire in Ukraine hung by a thread Wednesday after President Petro Poroshenko accused pro-Russian rebels of sinking the peace process and ordered troop reinforcements to eastern cities.
Artillery explosions could be heard around the airport in Donetsk, where Ukrainian soldiers have been holding out for weeks against surrounding separatist forces. Following salvos of Grad multiple rockets and cannon fire, black smoke rose from the area of Peski, a government-held village near the airport.
Later Wednesday, ceasefire observers representing government forces, rebels, Russia and the European security body OSCE were due to "discuss a possible path to a ceasefire in the area of the airport," a spokesman for the Ukrainian military said.
But the already tattered truce, which was signed September 5, has looked ever more fragile since rebels defied the government Sunday and held leadership elections that they described as legitimising their two self-declared independent states.
Russia said it "respected" the elections, but Kiev, the European Union and United States all said that the polls had badly damaged the peace process, which was based on giving rebel areas autonomy, not independence.
Rebel leaders have also threatened to expand their territory, especially to the Black Sea port of Mariupol.
In response, Poroshenko said late Tuesday that he had ordered reinforcements to guard against a "possible offensive in the direction of Mariupol, Berdyansk, Kharkiv and Luhansk north." "Ukraine remains a firm supporter of the peace plan," Poroshenko said.
But "we are obliged as the Ukrainian state not to allow the spread of this cancerous tumour, to ensure the blockade of this territory," he told his National Security and Defence Council.
"Today, several new units and groupings have been formed, which will already allow us to stop any possible attack," Poroshenko said.
"The supplying of our armed forces with the very latest technology - offensive, reconnaissance, guided systems - is continuing quite effectively." Poroshenko said he had also asked parliament to cancel the law offering autonomy to the rebels based around the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk. The law was at the heart of the September 5 accords.
The separatists adopted a conciliatory tone in their reply Wednesday, saying that they were ready to try and resurrect the peace process.
"We are prepared to work on a new version of the agreement," said the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk people's republics in an unusual joint statement.
Ukraine's small army has been badly mauled during the more than half-year of battles with rebels who Western governments say are supplied and supported by regular Russian troops.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday in Brussels that Russia continues to arm, train and support the rebels, with special forces inside Ukraine and more troops detected moving troops along the border.
Analysts say the Ukrainian government's biggest fear is the threat of an offensive by Russian-backed separatists to capture Mariupol and then push along the coast to establish a land corridor linking Russia to Crimea - another Ukrainian region, which was invaded and annexed by Russia in March.
bur-sms/gj Ukraine-Russia-crisisAFP 051012 GMT NOV 14