Separatists reject ceasefire amid fears of fresh rebel push

A rebel leader on Friday rejected any further talk of a ceasefire as NATO warned there were signs that a major rebel offensive was being planned, with more heavy weapons moving into east Ukraine from Russia.

Separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko said rebel fighters would continue to fight for more territory and are advancing in five directions to push back Ukrainian government forces to the limits of the eastern Donetsk region.

“Attempts to talk about a ceasefire will no longer be undertaken by our side,” Zakharchenko said.

It was unclear whether the rebels would respect this week’s agreement to pull back heavy weapons from the front line.

NATO says it has indications that a major rebel offensive is looming due to an increase in heavy weapons moving in from Russia as they have prior to previous rebel pushes.

Any rebel advances would further undermine a tentative peace deal forged this week in Berlin at a meeting of foreign ministers from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany.

The negotiations concluded with an agreement to uphold a demarcation line defined in September after talks in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

The plan calls for Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists to pull back their heavy arms 15 kilometres (9 miles) on either side of the line, though there was no agreement on a withdrawal of troops.

The urgency for a fresh settlement peaked over the weekend as battles intensified over control over the airport on the northern edge of the separatist stronghold of Donetsk. Clashes culminated with rebels taking control of the airport, although fighting is continuing in nearby settlements.

Separatist officials say Ukrainian forces are still targeting the airport.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appeared Thursday to still be holdingout hope for a new ceasefire and said stern retribution would await anybody violating the peace.

“If the enemy doesn’t want to abide by the ceasefire, if he doesn’t want to put an end to the suffering of peaceful people in Ukrainian villages and town, we will smash them in the teeth,” Poroshenko told a meeting of top defense officials.

The UN said Friday that the overall death toll in the conflict has risen above 5,000 since the outbreak of hostilities early last year.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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