MARIUPOL, Ukraine — Hopes for a rumored truce were shattered Thursday in this strategic eastern port as Russian troops attacked Ukrainian positions near the city with heavy artillery and missile fire, a Ukrainian militia leader said.
"It is a totally new game," said Oleg Odnorozhenko, deputy commander of the volunteer Azov Battalion, adding that the city's fighters are being attacked by regular Russian army troops, not just mercenaries and homegrown separatists.
The barrage on the outskirts of Mariupol coincided with declarations by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and leaders of the separatist militants in the country's east that a cease-fire was in the offing at negotiations today in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
But both sides made it clear that a halt in the conflict was contingent on the other side in effect capitulating.
Although authorities in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, have refused to negotiate with the separatists, the meeting in Minsk brings together representatives of the government and the separatists, Russia's ambassador to Ukraine and veteran diplomats of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE is the only international security forum to which both Russia and Ukraine belong.
"Tomorrow in Minsk a document will be signed providing for the gradual introduction of the Ukrainian peace plan," Poroshenko told reporters on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Wales, where leaders of the Western military alliance expressed solidarity with his fight to keep Ukraine intact.
Poroshenko's own formula for ending the conflict requires that the separatists lay down their arms and relinquish seized territory in exchange for negotiations on more autonomy for their regions within Ukraine.
Putin has denied that Russian troops or armor are engaged in the conflict, an assertion undermined by satellite images last week showing columns of Russian tanks and guns crossing the border.
Odnorozhenko said the columns that pushed across the border began striking at Mariupol's perimeter on Thursday.
"At first they tried our defenses with a tank raid, and when our firing positions revealed themselves they threw all their artillery at us," the militia commander said, describing the opposing forces as "very thorough and very professional."