Fighting intensified in Ukraine ahead of cease-fire

Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists unleashed a barrage of artillery fire Saturday, hours before a European brokered cease-fire came into effect.

The cease-fire officially was implemented at midnight Saturday (12 a.m. Sunday local time, 2200 UTC Saturday), several days after the agreement was reached Thursday in marathon talks among France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The U.N. Security Council is expected to meet Sunday for an emergency session to shore up the cease-fire.  U.N. diplomats say the 15-member body will vote on a Russian-drafted resolution calling on all parties to implement the deal.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine remained intense in the strategically important area around Debaltseve.  On Friday, at least 26 people were killed there, including Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.

Also Saturday, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt posted on Twitter what he said were satellite photos showing Russian artillery systems near the town of Lomuvatka, about 20 kilometers northeast of Debaltseve. The images could not immediately be verified.

Russia has denied sending troops or weapons across the border to aid in the fighting, which has killed at least 5,400 people and wounded thousands more since separatists launched their uprising 10 months ago.

“We are very concerned about continued fighting along and beyond the line of contact including in heavily populated civilian areas and reports of additional resupplies of tanks and missile systems coming across the border from Russia in the past few days,” said U.S. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki during a briefing Friday.

“The Russian military has deployed a large amount of artillery and multiple rocket launcher systems around Debaltseve where it is shelling Ukrainian positions,” said Psaki.  She added the U.S. had obtained its own information. “We are confident these are Russian military not separatist systems.  The Russian military also has air defense systems deployed near Debaltseve.  We are also confident these are Russian military not separatist systems.”

The U.S. said it also has evidence that Russian units along the border with Ukraine were preparing a large shipment of supplies meant for pro-Russian forces fighting in eastern Ukraine.

“This is clearly not in the spirit of the week’s agreement,” said Psaki. She called on all sides to show restraint ahead of the cease-fire.

The agreement calls for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons by both sides, for Ukraine to pull back from the current line of contact, for Russian-backed separatists to withdraw to a line agreed upon in a Minsk deal reached in September, and for an exchange of prisoners.

Ukraine and a host of Western governments accuse Moscow of stoking the rebellion in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east with arms and fighters.  Moscow has repeatedly denied providing direct support to rebels, and claims that Russian troops seen fighting alongside rebels are volunteers.