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Alec Luhn in Artemivsk
Pro-Russia and government forces fight for control of Debaltseve, with Ukrainian military saying rebels have fired on its troops 112 times in last 24 hours
Fighting has escalated in eastern Ukraine as government and pro-Russia forces struggle for control of the besieged town of Debaltseve, leaving the new ceasefire in tatters on its second day.
The Ukrainian military said on Monday that rebels had fired on its troops 112 times in the past 24 hours. At least five Ukrainian fighters have been killed and 25 wounded since the ceasefire began on Sunday, a military spokesman, Vladislav Seleznyov, told the Guardian.
The leaders of Russia, Germany and Ukraine discussed the Minsk ceasefire during a phone call on Monday night, the Kremlin said.
Russian president Vladimir Putin discussed the crisis with German chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko by telephone on Monday night, the Kremlin reported, without disclosing if the talks had made any progress.
However, separatist leaders said on Tuesday morning that they had to respond to fire from Ukrainian government troops and that they would not withdraw heavy weaponry unilaterally.
Most of the fighting was concentrated around Debaltseve, where thousands of soldiers have been cut off from the main Ukrainian lines near Artemivsk by rebel artillery. Pro-Russia forces have been trying for weeks to take the town, which holds a rail junction connecting the main rebel centres of Donetsk and Luhansk.
“The number of attacks on Debaltseve has even increased in comparison to previous days and they are using all types of weapons,” another military spokesman, Anatoly Stelmakh, said on Monday. “The terrorists have been given the order to take Debaltseve at all cost.”
Shelling destroyed the police station in the town on Monday, the regional police chief, Vyacheslav Abroskin, wrote on his Facebook page. And Ukrainian troops there have fought off several assaults, according to Seleznyov.
The rebel leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, said this weekend his forces would observe the ceasefire everywhere except in Debaltseve. Kiev has repeatedly denied that Debaltseve is cut off, despite evidence to the contrary.
The United States said on Monday it is “gravely concerned” by the fighting and said it is closely monitoring reports of a new column of Russian military equipment moving toward the region.
“These aggressive actions and statements by the Russia-backed separatists threaten the most recent ceasefire,” the US State Department said in a prepared statement. “We call on Russia and the separatists it backs to halt all attacks immediately.”
The continued fighting has stalled further implementation of the peace plan on both sides. Seleznyov said Kiev could not withdraw heavy weaponry until rebels stopped firing, while a military spokesman of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic said it would not pull back its weapons until there was a “full ceasefire”.
Both sides were supposed to pull back tanks, artillery and rocket launchers to create a buffer zone, starting at midnight on Monday, as the second step of the truce negotiated by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine in Minsk last week.
Donetsk negotiator Denis Pushilin said on Monday that pro-Russia forces would offer a “green corridor” through which the Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve could leave “without weapons and vehicles”. But the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, rejected similar proposals during bargaining last week in Minsk, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported at the weekend.
Debaltseve has been virtually cut off from the rest of the Ukrainian forces. A group of Ukrainian soldiers who broke out of Debaltseve on Sunday told the Guardian their column of seven trucks had come under heavy fire from rebel positions despite the ceasefire, and two of the vehicles were destroyed. They said that more than 60% of the city has been ruined by near-constant fires and shelling, and Kiev’s troops are trapped there with dwindling ammunition and supplies.
Ambulance drivers who have been trying to make it through to Debaltseve said both the highway connecting it to the main Ukrainian lines and the nearby fields have been mined, and rebel guns shoot at any vehicles moving across the 10-mile stretch of no man’s land. It has been impossible to use the highway since 8 February, said a national guard medic, Alla Neschadym, whose son Oleg is fighting in Debaltseve.
The national guard in Artemivsk has only four ambulances after four were destroyed by shelling and two were hit by mines in recent weeks, Neschadym said. Thousands of Ukrainian troops remain pinned down in the city, she added.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is supposed to monitor the implementation of the ceasefire, has not been able to access Debaltseve.
Since the ceasefire started, Ukrainian forces have also suffered casualties fighting for the town of Shyrokine near Mariupol, where mortar attacks were reported on Monday. Kiev began a counteroffensive last week to push back the demarcation line along the Azov coast near Mariupol. The Azov volunteer battalion said this weekend that tank battles and artillery duels were taking place in the area.
The continued fighting has raised diplomatic tensions, too. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had discussed the ceasefire by phone with Poroshenko, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French president, François Hollande, on Sunday night – including the “difficult situation in the area of Debaltseve” – according to a Kremlin statement.
The EU published a new sanctions list on Monday, expanding it to include popular Russian singer and MP Iosif Kobzon, who has been called Russia’s Frank Sinatra because of his rich baritone voice and alleged mob ties (which he denies).
Kobzon, who has been banned from the US since 1995, visited Donetsk in October for a concert in support of the rebels, even performing a song with the normally taciturn Zakharchenko.
In total, the EU blacklisted nine organisations and 19 people, including two Russian deputy defence ministers and the deputy chief of general staff, as well as several separatist leaders.
But despite the fighting and new sanctions, the rouble reached a one-month high against the dollar on Monday after the ceasefire took effect and oil prices made gains.