Street fighting in flashpoint Ukraine town threatens truce
Street-to-street 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 combat in Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub located between the separatist-held cities of Donetsk and Lugansk, was described as "intense".
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."
- 'Many' killed -
Another spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, denied rebel claims that dozens of government troops had surrendered. "Our military positions held" and soldiers were riposting, he said.
Rebels quoted by Russian-language news agencies said their forces had entered Debaltseve from the east and the north and killed "many" Ukrainian soldiers in a "mopping up" operation. They said they had taken control of the railway station.
The hostilities and rebel checkpoints outside the town prevented journalists from entering to verify the situation.
The fighting, though, severely undermines 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.
Lysenko accused the rebels of breaking the truce 164 times and said that "despite the ceasefire announcement, the enemy had been preparing for active combat operations".
He affirmed that Kiev was still prepared to withdraw its weapons "as soon as the ceasefire is applied along the frontline".
- 'Deteriorating situation' -
The United States and Germany earlier called for a stop to the hostilities and urged free access for OSCE monitors who have been blocked by rebels 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 latest 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.
- Town's status disputed -
Representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Ukraine and Russia held hours of talks Tuesday on that issue in Soledar, a town 40 kilometres (30 miles) from Debaltseve.
As news arrived of the combat happening, the talks were paused.
The rebels claim they had Debaltseve entirely surrounded so it should be considered well inside their territory and not be covered by the frontline ceasefire.
But Kiev argues its army was holding the town and maintained an access corridor, and so all hostilities there should have stopped as well.
In Geneva, UN official Rupert Colville said "we are particularly concerned" about thousands of civilians trapped in Debaltseve, "struggling to get food, water and other basic necessities".
He added: "We are alarmed by reports of continued shelling in Debaltseve, but have so far not managed to get reliable information on the fighting or casualties in the area."
The UN puts the total number of people killed since the start of Ukraine's conflict in April last year at more than 5,660.
The World Health Organization says the war has also taken a toll on health infrastructure, with 78 medical facilities shelled, six of them in the past two weeks.
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 retaliate.
© 2015 AFP