Russia, rebels attack Ukraine's call for peacekeepers
A plea from Ukraine for international peacekeepers to enforce a shattered ceasefire in the east ran into strident opposition Thursday from pro-Russian rebels and Moscow.
They argued the appeal, made late Wednesday by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, sought to "destroy" the UN-backed truce agreed under European mediation last week in the Belarus capital Minsk.
But four days after coming into effect, that truce was already in tatters.
This week, the rebels ignored it to storm a strategic town they had surrounded, Debaltseve, forcing thousands of government troops there to flee.
Kiev, the EU, US, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) tasked with monitoring the truce all said the rebel assault on Debaltseve was a violation of the ceasefire meant to apply to the whole conflict zone.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of cynically manipulating diplomacy while covertly deploying soldiers and military backing to the pro-Moscow separatists. The Kremlin denies the allegation.
- 'EU police mission' -
Poroshenko late Wednesday won approval from Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council to invite UN-mandated peacekeepers into the country to monitor the frontline.
"We see the best format would be a police mission from the European Union," he said. The decision has yet to be approved by Ukraine's parliament.
Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, quickly responded by saying Poroshenko's move "raises suspicions that he wants to destroy the Minsk accords".
The co-leader of the rebel's self-styled Donetsk republic, Denis Pushilin, flatly told the Interfax news agency that the appeal "is a violation... of the Minsk agreements".
He said Ukraine's two rebel breakaway territories would write a letter to Russia, France and Germany to make Kiev abide by the terms of the faltering peace deal.
The rebels had claimed that Debaltseve -- a key railway hub between the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk -- was inside their territory and therefore not subject to the ceasefire, even though their intense shelling had failed to dislodge thousands of government troops dug in there.
On Tuesday, the separatists overran the town, staging street-to-street battles with the troops, who eventually broke cover to escape.
Ukraine officials said more some 2,500 exhausted soldiers made it out -- around 80 percent of those who had been deployed.
The fate of the others was unknown Thursday.
The other Donetsk rebel leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, claimed "3,000 to 3,500" died in the separatists' "cleaning operation in Debaltseve," RIA Novosti reported. "Let Kiev take their dead."
Other rebels claimed some 300 soldiers had been taken prisoner.
However, both sides in the conflict frequently exaggerate for propaganda purposes, and it was not immediately possible to verify the real situation in the town. Journalists and OSCE monitors have been barred for days from entering.
- UN aid -
Regardless, the EU and US have called the rebel assault a "clear violation" of the truce brokered by France and Germany with the aim of quelling Ukraine's 10-month-old conflict which has killed more than 5,600 people.
The West has incrementally been increasing sanctions on Russia over its perceived role in backing the insurgents.
US Secretary of State John Kerry told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday "to stop Russian and separatist attacks on Ukrainian positions in Debaltseve and other violations of the ceasefire".
US President Barack Obama has also been mulling sending arms to Ukraine if the situation worsens.
Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed such weapons were already arriving in the country and warned they would only intensify the conflict.
Although the ceasefire has succeeded in dampening hostilities along other parts of the frontline, both sides still claimed frequent ceasefire violations by the other.
Kiev said Thursday it recorded 46 breaches over the past 24 hours, most of them from rebel rocket launchers, artillery and mortars.
The rebels for their part said government forces fired 13 times on their positions over the same period. They claimed to have killed 50 soldiers.
Meanwhile, a convoy of at least six UN trucks carrying 62 tonnes humanitarian aid was on its way to Donetsk to provide assistance to civilians in the rebel-held city struggling through the conflict and Ukraine's harsh winter.
"It's one of the first such convoys" to be sent to the city, one of the UN agencies in Geneva told AFP, adding that the trucks were carrying non-food items such as desperately-needed medicine.
Russia has sent more than a dozen convoys to east Ukraine over the past six months, but Kiev and the West claimed they weren't carrying humanitarian aid as stated, but rather weapons and supplies for the rebels.
© 2015 AFP