A new cease-fire in Ukraine is teetering on the brink of collapse as Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russia separatist rebels are accusing each other of violating the truce around a key town which each side claims as under its control.
The Ukrainian military said on Monday that its forces have come under fire 112 times in the past day, with 88 attacks registered on the railway town of Debaltseve, a critical transport hub in Ukraine’s east Donetsk region.
Five soldiers have been killed and 25 wounded in the latest attacks, which occured despite a European-brokered truce that went into effect Saturday at midnight.
On Sunday, pro-Russian rebels battling Ukrainian forces said the terms of cease-fire did not apply to Debaltseve, where thousands of government troops are said to be encircled by separatist fighters.
“You can hear there is no ceasefire,” said a rebel fighter
with a black ski mask who gave his name as Scorpion, his nom de guerre, and blamed the fighting on Kyiv’s forces. “Debaltseve is our land. And we will take Debaltseve.”
The separatists offered Kyiv’s troops safe-passage out of Debaltseve, but only if they laid down their arms. A spokesman for Ukraine’s military, Vladislav Seleznyov, told Reuters he rejected the proposal.
Kyiv insists that the latest truce deal put Debaltseve under government control.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said on Sunday its monitors in eastern Ukraine were turned back from Debaltseve.
Other flashpoints in the latest fighting Monday included the regional centers of Donetsk and Luhansk as well as the towns of Dokuchaievk, Vuhlehirsk and Horlivka.
Next stage of cease-fire
Withdrawal of heavy weapons from the frontlines in Ukraine is set to begin at midnight Monday under the terms of the cease-fire, negotiated late last week in Minsk, Belarus, by the the leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia.
But a Ukrainian military spokesman said such a move would be unlikely.
“One hundred and twelve attacks are not an indicator of a cease-fire. At the moment we are not ready to withdraw heavy weapons,” Andriy Lysenko told a news briefing in Kyiv.
In another development, the European Union included two Russian deputy defense ministers on its latest Ukraine sanctions list Monday, hitting them with travel bans and asset freezes for their role in the conflict.
They are among 19 new people and nine entities the EU has sanctioned due to the Ukraine crisis.
Russia said that it would respond “appropriately” to the latest EU measures.
Ukraine and a host of Western governments accuse Moscow of stoking the rebellion in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east with arms and fighters. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied providing direct support, and claims that Russian troops seen fighting alongside rebels are volunteers.
(Archive photo: Ukraine defence ministry)