Fierce fighting in key Ukraine town

Published: Wednesday 18th February 2015 by The News Editor

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Ukrainian forces and separatist rebels fought fierce street battles for control of the strategic railway hub of Debaltseve, impeding implementation of a peace plan.

Ukraine denied rebel claims to have taken control of the town but acknowledged the separatists had seized parts of it.

The battle came despite a weekend ceasefire that obliged both sides to start moving back their big guns yesterday.

A key railroad junction between the separatist east’s two main cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, Debaltseve has been the focus of fighting over the past two weeks and capturing it would be a prize for the Russia-backed rebels.

The defence ministry said street battles continued there yesterday and government soldiers had been ambushed and taken prisoner, but gave no details on how many were seized.

Rebel spokesman Eduard Basurin said hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered in Debaltseve.

The Ukrainian presidential office called on the EU and Nato condemn the Russia-backed rebels for violating the ceasefire brokered by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France last week.

US v ice president Joe Biden condemned violations of the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine which the White House is blaming on pro-Russian separatists and Russian forces.

Mr Biden spoke by telephone to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, and he said if Russia keeps violating the agreements reached with Ukraine, costs for Moscow will increase.

The war in eastern Ukraine has already killed more than 5,600 people and displaced more than a million, the United Nations said on Monday. It has also left the country’s industrial heartland in ruins.

Yesterday , a deadline passed for both sides to begin pulling back heavy weapons from the front line.

Rebel commander Vladimir Kononov said on Russian television that most of Debaltseve was under separatist control and urged the Ukrainian troops to surrender.

“Their only choice is to leave behind weaponry, lay down arms and surrender,” he said.

The announcement by the rebels came after fierce fighting that appeared to be focused on Debaltseve.

Both sides in the conflict claim the town is on their side of the ceasefire line, and the issue was not resolved under the ceasefire deal.

“The situation in Debaltseve is extremely complicated and is changing by the hour,” Ukrainian military spokesman Andruy Lysenko said.

“Several groups of the enemy have burst into the city.”

The continued fighting comes as concern remains about whether the US will decide to send lethal weapons to Ukraine.

Russian president Vladimir Putin said yesterday in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, that he believed weapons were already being delivered.

He also suggested the Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve should lay down their arms.

Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the UN was “alarmed” by reports of continued shelling and has not been able to get reliable information on casualties or the well-being of civilians.

“It is unclear how many civilians are still there,” he said. “We are particularly concerned about the civilians trapped in the area. We believe there may be a few thousand hiding in cellars, struggling to get food, water and other basic necessities.”

Elsewhere, at least one rebel leader claimed that his troops had begun to withdraw their heavy weapons.

“I was at the front line last night, and our tanks, our artillery were pulling back,” Igor Plotnitsky, the leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, north-east of Debaltseve, was quoted as saying by the Russian news agency Tass.

Published: Wednesday 18th February 2015 by The News Editor

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