Ukraine’s president took advantage of a fragile cease-fire to tour a once-embattled port city Monday and tell backers that his forces would never yield the territory to pro-Russian rebels.
The visit to Mariupol was strong on symbolism as President Petro Poroshenko addressed workers at a metal plant from a stage decorated with Ukraine’s yellow-and-blue colors. But it also served as a message to the rebels — and their supporters in Moscow — that Ukraine’s military was prepared to defend the strategic area if the truce imposed last week unravels.
“This city is and will be Ukrainian,’’ Poroshenko told hundreds of workers, according to the presidential Web site.
Mariupol, which came under rebel shelling last week, is a key prize in the territorial showdowns in Ukraine. It occupies a strip connecting the mainland with Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia in March. Mariupol’s fall to rebel control could cost Ukraine more coastline and give separatists important new footholds in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s military said the truce, which took effect Friday, was generally holding. It has allowed both sides to exchange prisoners. Poroshenko said rebel forces released 20 Ukrainian soldiers Monday.
The break in hostilities came as government forces and rebels regrouped after weeks of increasingly bloody fighting. Divisions about the political future of the country remain as deep as ever, however, fueling skepticism about whether the cease-fire can endure.