The Ukrainian military said on Saturday that there had been no let-up in an offensive by pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, with rebels trying to seize more territory ahead of the ceasefire’s deadline.
An uncertain ceasefire agreement signed in Minsk on Thursday between Ukrainian government and rebel forces came into force at midnight after a day of deadly battles in the east of the country.
“Ahead of midnight, rebels are trying to complete tactically important plans to enlarge the territory under their control, primarily in the direction of Debaltseve,” spokesman Andriy Lysenko said at a daily televised briefing in Kiev.
Debaltseve, a strategic transport hub northeast of the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk, has been the focus of some of the fiercest fighting in recent weeks.
Seven Ukrainian service personnel have been killed and 23 wounded in fighting in the past 24 hours, Lysenko said. Government and rebel officials agreed that six civilians had also died.
On Saturday, the leader of the pro-Russian rebel administration in eastern Ukraine Alexander Zakharchenko appeared to exclude Debaltseve from the scope of the ceasefire.
According to FRANCE 24's Kiev correspondent Gulliver Cragg, Zakharchenko said he would neither shoot Ukrainian soldiers trapped in the city, nor let them out.
"He seems to be threatening to let them die there of hunger, which is very menacing language," Cragg said, adding: "Alexander Zakharchenko has in the past made declarations that were extremely controversial and then been forced — I'm not sure by whom — to withdraw them afterwards, so maybe there is some hope about that."
Peace plan in ‘great danger’
On Friday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that the continuing bombardment of civilians in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists was already undermining the peace plan reached in Minsk a day before.
"Unfortunately after the Minsk agreement, Russia's offensive has significantly increased. We still think that the agreement is in great danger," Poroshenko said during a meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
"After what we concluded in Minsk, these are not only attacks against civilians but also against the Minsk agreement," he added, referring to the shelling of the town of Artemivsk that killed three people including a seven-year-old.
The truce — which was reached following marathon talks among the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany — envisages the creation of a neutral “buffer zone,” and withdrawal of the heavy weapons responsible for many of the 5,000 casualties in the conflict that broke out almost a year ago.
But with separatists fighting to conquer more territory ahead of the truce and Kiev forces digging in, there are fears over whether anyone will observe the ceasefire, considered vital to the success of the peace plan.
The UN Security Council is expected to meet on Sunday for an emergency session to shore up the ceasefire deal, diplomats said.
US accuses Russia of deploying weapons
The United States said it believed Russia was continuing to deploy heavy weapons ahead of the ceasefire.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US had received reports of heavy weapons being moved into eastern Ukraine from Russia over the past few days, and more apparently on the way.
"This is clearly not in the spirit of this week's agreement," Psaki told reporters.
She said the Russian military had deployed large amounts of artillery and multiple rocket launcher systems and was using them to shell Ukrainian positions. Moscow denies supplying the rebels with arms.
Ukraine has also accused Russia of sending fighters and military equipment across the border.
Meanwhile, the G7 nations — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — have voiced their concern about the violence and the build-up of weapons in eastern Ukraine.
Welcoming the peace plan, the group of industrialised nations called on all sides to refrain from moves that could scuttle the deal.
The G7 warned it was ready to "intensify the costs" for anyone who broke the terms of the agreement.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)