Heavy artillery fire roared today in eastern Ukraine as fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists continued hours before a ceasefire was to take effect. Under an agreement reached Thursday, the warring sides are to cease firing at midnight local time, but the intense fighting has skeptics wondering whether this cease-fire will suffer the same fate as one in September that failed to take hold. Associated Press reporters saw an artillery barrage near the town of Svitlodarsk as well as considerable movement of Ukrainian forces' armored vehicles and rocket launchers along the road. Svitlodarsk is about 12 miles north of Debaltseve, a strategically important railroad junction city.
Officials in the port city of Mariupol, meanwhile, said an array of artillery attacks hit areas near the city during the morning. There was no immediate information on casualties. Mariupol is on the Azov Sea, and concerns are strong that Russian-backed separatists aim to seize it as a step toward establishing a corridor between mainland Russia and the Crimean Peninsula that Russia annexed 11 months ago. Russia has flatly denied repeated Western claims that it has sent troops and equipment to the eastern Ukraine rebels. (Read more Ukraine stories.)