Germany, France demand crumbling Ukraine ceasefire be 'fully respected'
Germany and France demanded Friday that a crumbling Ukraine truce be "fully respected" even as pro-Russian rebels celebrated a battlefield victory in a strategic town and exchanged artillery fire elsewhere with government troops.
"The ceasefire has been violated several times," French President Francois Hollande said in a joint Paris media conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"It must now be fully respected along the entire frontline."
Merkel added that "we don't have any illusions" about how difficult it would be to get the ceasefire to take hold, but was "even more convinced" that the only solution was a truce that led to a negotiated peace.
French officials said the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France would meet in Paris next Tuesday to discuss the conflict.
While Merkel and Hollande met, pro-Russian rebels were taking victorious photos of each other in the east Ukrainian town of Debaltseve, a strategic transport hub they overran this week despite the ceasefire coming into force last Sunday.
The town was a graveyard of burnt-out Ukrainian army vehicles, craters and shattered buildings.
The battle for the town had involved non-stop shelling before the rebels stormed it for street-to-street fighting. It was "terrible, terrible," one resident, Natalia Datskaya, 54, told AFP.
In an underground shelter littered with the detritus of days of survival, some 20 haggard women reproached the West for not doing enough to halt the violence. "You didn't defend us," one said.
- UN 'deeply worried' -
Friday also marked a year since the culmination of days of bloody protests in Kiev's Independence Square that led to the toppling of Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych.
Yanukovych's departure triggered a series of tumultuous events, including Russia's annexation of Crimea and, eventually, war in eastern Ukraine.
Efforts by Ukraine's Western-backed government to halt the violence have so far failed and it has come under criticism for losing key territory.
Around 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers who had been holding Debaltseve were forced to flee Wednesday after the rebels, wielding grenade launchers, poured into it in what Ukraine, the EU and US called a "clear violation" of the ceasefire.
Kiev said 13 troops were killed in the withdrawal and 110 seized by the separatists, with another 31 missing.
But the rebels said they found the bodies of 57 soldiers, as well as many abandoned weapons, including 28 tanks. They claimed to have taken hundreds of prisoners.
One rebel official in charge of human rights, Daria Morozova, said an initial exchange of prisoners with the Ukrainian side would take place on Saturday, the Interfax news agency reported.
There was no immediate confirmation from Kiev, but a swap was agreed as part of the truce forged by Germany and France through all-night marathon negotiations last week in the Belarus capital Minsk.
A spokesman for the UN human rights agency speaking in Geneva, Rupert Colville, said "we remain deeply worried about the fate of civilians and captured or wounded" in the Debaltseve area.
He also expressed concern over resumed shelling near the rebel stronghold of Donetsk and the government-held port city of Mariupol.
Colville said the conservative UN death toll from the 10-month Ukraine conflict was 5,692 -- but stressed the real number "may be considerably higher".
Ukrainian officials said Friday two more soldiers had died in the conflict zone in the past 24 hours while rebels said army shelling killed a woman civilian in Donetsk late Thursday.
- 'Critical moment' -
The United States and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accuse Russia of being behind the hostilities.
A Ukrainian military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, said Friday that Russia sent over the border "more than 20 tanks and 10 self-propelled guns" headed towards Novoazovsk, near Mariupol.
Poroshenko has called for international peacekeepers to be deployed to keep the separatists and Russian forces in check.
However, in a phone call he held Thursday with Merkel, Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin, that appeal was ignored and the leaders agreed that the ceasefire should be applied regardless.
Moscow denies directly supporting the rebels.
"This is a critical moment for Ukraine," warned Ivica Dacic, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe which is tasked with monitoring the ceasefire.
In a statement, Dacic said he was "concerned that the continuous breaches of the ceasefire... may lead to uncontrolled violence".
© 2015 AFP