Fighting erupts in flashpoint Ukraine town, breaking truce
Fighting broke out for the first time inside a flashpoint town in east Ukraine on Tuesday, officials and pro-Russian rebels said, dealing a harsh blow to a fragile ceasefire just three days old.
The street-to-street combat, described by both sides as "intense", was raging in Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub located between the separatist-held cities of Donetsk and Lugansk.
The town is largely encircled by heavily armed rebels who previously had been exchanging artillery fire with up to 8,000 government troops holed up inside.
Ilya Kiva, a deputy regional police chief inside the town who was reached by telephone, said the rebels had entered Debaltseve and were using small arms, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
"There are wounded and killed but we cannot confirm the numbers yet as the battles are still continuing," Kiva said.
"Battles are going on right now with rebels storming our positions," a Ukraine military spokesman in Kiev, Alexander Motuzyanik, confirmed to AFP.
"Groups of rebel fighters are penetrating into the town itself."
Rebels quoted by Russian-language news agencies said their forces had entered from the east and the north and killed "many" Ukrainian soldiers in a "mopping up" operation in the town. They said they were in control of the railway station.
The development severely undermined an already shaky European-brokered ceasefire that came into effect across eastern Ukraine on Sunday.
A second step of that truce was meant to see the warring sides move their heavy weapons back from the frontline from Tuesday. But Kiev and the rebels accused each other of repeated violations that prevented that happening.
- 'Deteriorating situation' -
The United States and Germany had called for a stop to the hostilities and urged free access for OSCE monitors who have been blocked from entering Debaltseve.
"The United States is gravely concerned by the deteriorating situation in and around Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement issued before the street-to-street fighting broke out.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had also discussed the situation with US Secretary of State John Kerry and "expressed concern" about rebel breaches of the ceasefire, especially around Debaltseve, Poroshenko's office said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin also held a late Monday phone call in which they agreed "concrete measures" to allow OSCE monitors to fulfil their role of observing the ceasefire, according to Merkel's office.
Ukrainian defence officials had earlier said their troops had been fired on more than a dozen times in the east, including with Grad multiple rocket launchers near Debaltseve. Five troops were killed since Monday, most of them around the flashpoint town.
The rebels claim that they entirely surround Debaltseve and so it should be considered part of their territory and therefore not covered by the ceasefire.
But Kiev argues its army was holding the town, which is enclaved in rebel-held territory, and that all hostilities there should have stopped as with the rest of the frontline.
Ukraine and the West say Russia is fomenting the insurgency, ordering in troops and tanks in a similar operation that preceded the annexation of Crimea last year. Moscow denies the allegation and says Russian fighters seen in east Ukraine are "volunteers".
On Monday, the EU ratcheted up its sanctions against Russia by blacklisting five Russians, including two deputy defence ministers, along with 14 Ukrainian rebel figures. Russia vowed it would respond to the "illogical" move.
© 2015 AFP