DONETSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - A ceasefire is broadly holding at last on the front line in eastern Ukraine, but fighters in the separatist stronghold of Donetsk are training for another round of clashes against government troops.
Honing their skills under the eye of rebel commanders, fighters fired automatic assault rifles, grenade launchers and even an anti-tank missile at targets propped against a pile of earth and rock discarded from a nearby mine on Sunday.
“We don’t want this war”, said Yegor, a commander of the squad, which is part of the new Republican Guard created by the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zacharchenko.
“But when we see what’s happening on the other (Ukrainian) side we’re preparing for the worst”.
Ukraine and rebel leaders signed new Minsk peace accords on Feb. 12, agreeing to a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons on both sides of the 10-month long conflict that has killed 6,000 people.
The rebels initially flouted the peace agreement, spending the first days of the ceasefire capturing the strategic transport hub of Debaltseve in violence that reduced the town to a wasteland of destroyed homes and pock-marked roads.
Since then the firing of heavy guns has slowed, and for several days last week Ukraine reported no deaths at the hands of the pro-Russian rebels took up arms against Kiev in April.
The weekend was one of the quietest in weeks.
Kiev says the rebels are using the truce to regroup and pulling out heavy weaponry to prepare for more attacks on other areas of eastern Ukraine outside their area of control, including the government-held port city of Mariupol.
“There are signs the enemy is preparing for further offensives,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said on Sunday.
“Everywhere where the militants show that they are withdrawing heavy weaponry, it is either simply to relocate (the armaments) where they are planning attacks or remove them only to put them back in place the next night,” he told a briefing.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is monitoring the peace accord, has said it needs details on where withdrawn weapons were being transported and stored before it could confirm the pull-back.
The rebels have denied planning any more attacks on Ukraine-held soil and say they are training to defend themselves against Ukrainian troops they say have invaded ‘their land’ and still fire at them from time to time.
Ukraine has also stepped up training, aiming to turn the fledgling army into a western-style fighting force with 250,000 military men and advisors from Britain.
Kiev and the West say Russia has provided weapons and soldiers to support the rebels - an accusation Moscow denies.
The rebels insist their arms, even some of their most powerful weapons, are bounty they have taken from the Ukrainians or left behind when government troops flee their positions.
“Thank the Ukrops for the weapons they provided!” one of fighters shouted, using a derogatory nickname for Ukrainian soldiers which means “dill” in Russian, and fires a machine gun with a long belt of ammunition.
On the heap of earth, Kalashnikov bullets sometimes miss the mark, sending up a spray of rock and dust from the red mound located only a quarter of a mile from a residential area of Donetsk, where children play among the sound of flying bullets.
Rebels also shot grenades from shoulder-launched RPGs. The climax of the two-hour long training session was an anti-tank missile fired by a rebel named Alexander who wore a white balaclava and fatigues throughout the training.
Asked why only one missile was launched, a rebel in civilian clothing who gave his name only as Andrei, answered: “Because each shot of it costs $6,500”.
Yegor, the commander, said some fighters had just been recruited and could barely hit the targets. He said others were brought to the training ground to ensure that the newcomers followed safety rules like putting up their barrels when other shooters rush to check if targets are hit.
“These guys have tried to shoot me more times than the other side has,” he said and chuckled.
After the training, fighters made sure they left behind no ammunition and climbed into the back of a military truck. Only the long wooden case of the anti-tank rocket remained lying on the withered grass.
“It’s for a local guy. He wanted to use it to carry his fishing rods”, one of the fighters explained as they drove away.
Writing by Thomas Grove; editing by Philippa Fletcher