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World

Separatists In Eastern Ukraine Expected To Target Mariupol

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Ukraine. Since a truce was put in place last month, international monitors have reported hundreds of violations along the front line between Ukrainian government forces and separatists with their Russian allies. Those international monitors are expected to hold a news conference today to report on the cease-fire. But many in the eastern Ukraine believe the truce is little more than a timeout before a new onslaught of violence. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports on one possible flashpoint, a port city in the south of Ukraine.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: It's a cold, windy morning at a key Ukrainian government checkpoint on the outskirts of Mariupol. Fighters from the Donbas battalion are allowing only a few vehicles to pass toward the village of Shyrokine, which is the scene of ongoing fighting despite the cease-fire. This is the battalion commander who goes by the nickname Thor.

THOR: (Through interpreter) Today, they hit us with mortars, big ones that are forbidden by the Minsk agreement. And then two tanks showed up and fired directly at us.

FLINTOFF: Thor says his side fires back only in self-defense and only with small-caliber weapons because they've moved their heavy artillery back in accordance with the truce. Journalists and international observers have reported seeing heavy weapons and even tanks on both sides of the line. Thor is convinced that his enemies are only building up their forces for an attack on Mariupol.

STEVEN PIFER: There's a couple of specific reasons why Mariupol might be of interest. First of all, it's the port city through which a lot of the product of Donetsk and Luhansk would flow, the steel products and other heavy industry.

FLINTOFF: That's Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He says that if the separatists want a viable economy in their regions, they'll need Mariupol as a seaport. He says the city is also important because it sits on a highway that goes all the way to Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine a year ago. Capturing that road would make it a lot easier to move supplies from Russia to Crimea, but Pifer says it could be a costly route to protect.

PIFER: Because it would mean the Russian army going through about 200 miles of territory where you have not seen very much pro-Russian sentiment. And then it's not just the task of taking it, it's the task of garrisoning and protecting it. And when I was in Kiev in January, I heard a lot of people talking already about partisan warfare plans.

FLINTOFF: Partisan, or guerrilla warfare, would be a nightmare. A direct assault on Mariupol, a city of around 500,000 people, would be even worse, residents say. This middle-aged man gave his name only as Gennady. Like many people in the city, he's fearful of reprisals if an attack takes place. He's a manager at a factory and says he doesn't think the Russian-backed separatists would risk destroying the city's valuable infrastructure in an attack.

GENNADY: (Through interpreter) But if the other side won't listen to common sense, we'll fight bravely. Those people are Russian speakers like us, and if they attack us, we will never forgive them.

FLINTOFF: This young woman, Marina, says she wants peace, but if an attack comes, she won't leave Mariupol.

MARINA: (Through interpreter) What can I do? It's my home. I adore my city. I love my country. That's why I want everything to be normal. But if something happens, I'll just have to take shelter in the basement.

FLINTOFF: Many civilians in eastern Ukraine have already had the harrowing experience of hiding in basements while fighting raged around them. If it becomes a target, Mariupol could be the most awful example yet of the cost of this war. Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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