At least 17 people were killed in battles in east Ukraine as Russian-backed separatists mounted a major and sustained new push on Friday to capture the strategic railway hub of Debaltseve ahead of a midnight Sunday ceasefire deadline.
Clashes appeared to be on the increase in the days since a peace agreement was signed in the Belarusian capital Minsk by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France. German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautiously described the agreement announced Thursday as “a glimmer of hope”.
The government-held railway town of Debaltseve was on the receiving end of dozens of artillery and rocket salvos in the 24-hour period following the Minsk deal, Ukrainian military officials said.
The deadline for the warring sides to halt hostilities is set to take effect on Sunday at one minute after midnight.
Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Friday that 11 soldiers were killed and another 40 wounded the previous day. Regional authorities loyal to Kiev reported six civilian deaths in areas under their control, while rebels said seven people were killed in artillery attacks on the separatist-held cities of Luhansk and Horlivka.
Russian troops near Debaltseve?
Recently separatist forces have nearly completely encircled Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve, where all but a few thousand civilians have fled to areas away from the front.
Ukraine says that Debaltseve should remain in government control under the terms of a September peace deal that defined the contours of the front line. A copy of that agreement leaked to Ukrainian media last month shows the town lying on the government’s side of the line of contact agreed by both sides in the conflict.
Ukrainian access to the sole highway still linking the town to government-held territory looks to have been compromised with the apparent capture of the village of Lohvynove, which lies along the road just north of Debaltseve.
The Donbass Battalion, a unit with Ukraine’s National Guard engaged in battles around Lohvynove, said in a statement that captured combatants had confirmed Russian troops were actively involved in battles.
Moscow vehemently denies that it provides manpower and weapons to the rebel forces, although the quantity of powerful weapons at the separatists’ disposal has increasingly strained that position.
Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying on Friday that Moscow would act only as a guarantor in the peace process but that it could not affect developments on the ground.
“We simply cannot do this physically, because Russia is not a participant in this conflict,” Peskov was quoted as saying.
US General Philip Breedlove, the NATO supreme allied commander Europe, has said the alliance has seen Russian troops and tanks entering Ukraine, confirming similar reports from international observers.
Next step: Buffer zone
The next step, to begin on Monday, is to form a sizeable buffer zone between Ukrainian forces and the Russia-backed rebels. Each side is to pull heavy weaponry back from the front line, creating a zone roughly 50-140 kilometres (30-85 miles) wide, depending on the calibre of the weapons. The withdrawals are to be completed within two weeks.
Other thorny political questions, including the possibility of providing a degree of autonomy for the disputed eastern regions, are to be settled by the end of the year.
The peace deal envisions an amnesty for people involved in the conflict, but the vague terms of that provision will likely be subject to further negotiation.
Speaking to parliament on Friday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said amnesty would not be granted to anybody suspected of committing crimes against humanity.
“This is an absolute position that was unambiguously underlined during [Thursday’s] negotiations,” Klimkin said.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)