Ukraine says peace hopes 'destroyed' as rebels assault town
Ukraine on Tuesday accused rebels and Russia of scuppering a fragile three-day-old ceasefire after insurgents armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades stormed a flashpoint town and engaged thousands of troops there in intense combat.
"The hopes of the world for peace are being destroyed," the deputy head of Ukraine's presidential administration, Valeriy Chaly, told a news conference in Kiev.
"Russia and the DNR (the rebels' self-styled breakaway Donetsk republic) are not abiding by the agreement" underpinning the truce, he said, warning that the situation was careening towards "further escalation".
Fierce fighting was raging in the streets of Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub between the main rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Lugansk, according to both Kiev officials and pro-Russian rebels.
"Street battles are continuing and the rebels are attacking the town in groups with support from artillery and heavy armour," the Ukraine defence ministry said in a statement. "Part of the town has been captured by the bandits."
A defence spokesman, Anatoliy Stelmakh, told AFP that "several (army) units were surrounded" and some soldiers were captured but did not give figures.
Rebels quoted by Russian-language news agencies said their fighters rushed in from the north and the east of Debaltseve and had taken its vital railway station.
Many Ukrainian troops were killed and taken prisoner, they claimed.
Some 80 percent of the town was now in rebel hands, the "defence minister" of the separatist Donetsk republic, Vladimir Kononov, told Russian news outlet LifeNews.
- Unknown number of casualties -
Ukrainian officials denied the rebels' casualty claim, but admitted troops in a supply convoy on Monday were captured. They previously said 10 soldiers had been killed since the start of the truce on Sunday, several of them in or around Debaltseve.
Russia and the rebels claim some 8,000 Ukrainian soldiers are in the key town.
An estimated 5,000 civilians are also trapped there, cowering in cellars with little food or water.
Ilya Kiva, a Kiev-loyal deputy regional police chief inside the town reached by telephone, said the fighting precluded counting of dead and wounded. He said the soldiers "are waging a fierce battle; the battle for the city continues".
Up until Tuesday, the heavily armed rebels had surrounded Debaltseve and had been pounding it with rockets and mortars.
The separatists blocked access to the town to journalists and monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) seeking to enter to verify conditions.
Tuesday's combat dealt a harsh blow to the shaky, European-mediated ceasefire.
Both sides have refused to pull back their heavy weapons along the frontline in Ukraine's east because of what each said was violations of the truce by the other.
- Alleged Russian support -
The truce was agreed by Kiev and the rebels last week after painstaking peace talks in Belarus between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France.
The pro-Russian rebels have since argued that Debaltseve was well inside their territory and so should not be included in the ceasefire agreement.
But Ukraine described it as a finger of territory it controlled and therefore subject to the truce.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of deploying troops and tanks to support the separatists in the 10-month conflict that has killed more than 5,660 people. Moscow denies that and describes the Russian fighters seen in Ukraine as "volunteers".
Ukraine's representative to the UN in Geneva, Yuriy Klymenko, said a "so-called humanitarian" convoy of 176 Russian trucks crossed into Ukraine on Sunday and many of them were believed to be carrying cargo such as fuel for "Russian-provided tanks".
The violence in Debaltseve has unsettled world powers and agencies. The US expressed "serious concern" while a UN official in Geneva, Rupert Colville, said: "We are alarmed."
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the situation in Ukraine was "not encouraging" but "I would not say there is a failure" yet of the peace deal.
She said "we knew from the beginning that it was going to be difficult, fragile," but the Russians and separatists know that "it's all the international community looking for the implementation of these agreements".
The UN Security Council was to hold a meeting on Ukraine at 2000 GMT Tuesday at Russia's request.
© 2015 AFP