Shelling booms around Bakhmut's streets in 'Christmas ceasefire'

By Herbert Villaraga

BAKHMUT, Ukraine (Reuters) -Shellfire echoed on Saturday around the near-deserted streets of the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, current focus of the most intense fighting in Russia's invasion of Ukraine, despite Moscow's declaration of a ceasefire for Eastern Orthodox Christmas.

Sparkling clear skies and a dusting of snow belied the devastation of a city abandoned by most of its pre-war population of 70,000, where humanitarian volunteers now risk their lives to support those who stayed.

"Dear God, our town used to be so beautiful," said 75-year-old Olha, smartly dressed and wearing lipstick as she carried shopping bags along the street.

"There were roses everywhere, flowers," she added, hardly flinching at the sound of a distant boom. "It was clean, everything was kept in order."

Moscow said on Saturday its forces in Ukraine would maintain a 36-hour ceasefire declared by President Vladimir Putin until midnight, despite Ukraine rejecting the offer.

In a Facebook post, the general staff of Ukraine's armed forces said Russian troops had shelled dozens of positions and settlements along the front line on Saturday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the attacks showed Moscow could not be trusted.

"They were saying something about a supposed ceasefire. The reality, however, was that Russian shells once again hit Bakhmut and other Ukrainian positions," he said in a video address.

Russia said its troops had only returned artillery fire when fired upon by Ukrainian forces; Reuters was not able to ascertain the origin of the shells heard in Bakhmut.

"The ceasefire, you know how that works?" said 30-year-old humanitarian volunteer Vasyl Liesin.

"When Putin says there's a ceasefire, it's actually the other way round: there's no ceasefire. They shelled us a lot yesterday. During the night, it was more or less calm. But that's how it usually is: one day there's shelling, the next day it's calmer."

A drive around Bakhmut, which sits on the front line bisecting Ukraine's Donetsk province, reveals the scars of months of bombardment, from smashed storefronts to mangled workshops and wrecked businesses.

Volunteers like Liesin help to maintain "invincibility centres", set up to provide electricity, heat, water, internet service, mobile phone connections and medicines free of charge as Russian attacks devastate basic civilian infrastructure.

The centres may demonstrate indomitable spirit, but they are far from invulnerable.

"When we visited another invincibility point yesterday for 15-20 minutes, a rocket hit us. It damaged a volunteer vehicle, killed one person, and injured four," said Liesin, who was wearing a helmet and a flak jacket.

"Volunteers were injured, and one local Bakhmut volunteer lost a limb and was evacuated. I hope that people were in their protective gear, but the situation is unclear. We know they were seriously injured."

Olha, who declined to give her surname, poured scorn on the idea of any Christmas respite from Russia's onslaught. "I think they're tricking us, it's pretty obvious to me," she said.

"What else can I tell you? If someone makes a promise, that someone must fulfil it. Promises are made to be kept. I just don't understand, what do they need?"

(Editing by Alexandra Hudson, David Ljunggren and Daniel Wallis)