Rebels pledge prisoner exchange as Ukraine ceasefire teeters
Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine promised Friday to start exchanging prisoners, in a possible boost to a ceasefire still supported by the West despite serious violations.
A rebel official for 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 by both sides as part of the truce forged last week in the Belarus capital Minsk through European mediation.
That UN-backed truce is in tatters after coming into effect last Sunday with each side accusing the other of continued breaches.
The worst was a rebel assault on Debaltseve, a strategic transport hub linking the insurgents' two strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk, from where 2,500 government soldiers fled on Wednesday and scores of others were taken prisoner.
Kiev said 13 troops were killed in the withdrawal and 110 seized by the separatists, with another 31 missing.
But the rebels, now in control of the town, 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.
A spokesman for the UN human right agency speaking in Geneva, Rupert Colville, said that "we remain deeply worried about the fate of civilians and captured or wounded" in the Debaltseve area, and expressed concern about resumed shelling near Donetsk and the port city of Mariupol.
He said the conservative UN death toll from the Ukraine conflict since it started in April 2014 now stood at 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' -
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose government is being criticised for incompetence over the Debaltseve rout, accuses Russia of being behind the hostilities and has called for international peacekeepers to be deployed.
However, in a phone call Thursday between Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin, that appeal was ignored and the leaders agreed that the ceasefire should be applied regardless.
"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".
There has been no confirmation of either side pulling back heavy weapons from the frontline, which was meant to have begun Tuesday and be completed by March 3.
Merkel and Hollande were to discuss the situation further in a meeting in Paris later on Friday.
The United States, which has been mulling providing defensive weapons to Ukraine, said the pro-Russian separatists have broken the ceasefire "more than 250 times".
"The United States condemns continuing attacks by Russia-backed separatists in and around Debaltseve, Mariupol and other locations in eastern Ukraine which violate the ceasefire and flout the Minsk agreements," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington on Thursday.
Psaki called on Russia and the separatists "to stop their attacks immediately, withdraw heavy weapons, halt the flow of fighters and equipment from Russia into Ukraine".
Moscow denies directly supporting the rebels.
- Truce 'will fall apart' -
Meanwhile, a scathing report from a British parliamentary committee said Britain and the EU were guilty of "a catastrophic misreading of the (Russian) mood in the run-up to the crisis".
Eurasia Group, a think tank, said in an analysis note it believed the ceasefire would be kept "alive, if damaged" for the time being.
But it estimated at 55 percent the likelihood that "the Minsk plan will eventually fall apart" because of tricky later stages of the peace plan, which call for negotiations over autonomy for rebel regions and Ukraine regaining control over its border with Russia.
© 2015 AFP