FIERCE fighting surged in east Ukraine yesterday as Russian-backed separatists mounted a sustained new push to capture a strategic railway hub ahead of tomorrow’s ceasefire deadline.
Clashes appeared only to have increased in the day since a peace agreement was sealed in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France. German chancellor Angela Merkel cautiously described the agreement negotiated on Thursday as “a glimmer of hope”.
The government-held railway town of Debaltseve was on the receiving end of dozens of artillery and rocket salvos in the 24-hour period following the Minsk talks.
Eyewitnesses told how they saw intense shelling along the highway north of the town, which remains the only land link between Debaltseve and the remainder of government-controlled territory.
The deadline for the warring sides to halt hostilities is set to take effect at one minute after midnight tomorrow.
Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted Petro Mekhed, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, as saying separatist forces had been given the task of hoisting their flags over Debaltseve, as well as the port city of Mariuopol, by tomorrow.
Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said yesterday that 11 soldiers had been killed and another 40 wounded over the previous day. Regional authorities loyal to Kiev reported six civilian deaths in areas under their control, while rebels said seven people had been killed in artillery attacks on the separatist-held cities of Luhansk and Horlivka.
Separatist forces have nearly completely encircled Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve, from which all but a few thousand civilians have fled.
Ukraine says Debaltseve should remain in government control under the terms of a September peace deal that traced the contours of the front line. A copy of that agreement leaked to Ukrainian media last month shows the town lying on the government’s side of the line of contact agreed by rebel and Ukrainian officials alike.
Ukrainian access to the sole highway still linking the town to government-held territory looks to have been compromised with the apparent capture of the village of Lohvynove, which lies along the road, just north of Debaltseve.
Eyewitnesses say they saw the smouldering remains of two Ukrainian army trucks near the village of Luhanske, some six miles (10km) up the road from Lohvynove.
The Donbass Battalion, a unit with Ukraine’s National Guard that is engaged in battles around Lohvynove, said captured combatants had confirmed Russian troops were actively involved.
Moscow vehemently denies providing manpower and weapons to the rebel forces, although the sheer quantity of powerful weapons at the separatists’ disposal has increasingly strained that position.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow would act only as a guarantor in the peace process but it could not affect developments on the ground. “We simply cannot do this physically, because Russia is not a participant in this conflict,” he said.
The ceasefire is to be monitored by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Its secretary general, Lamberto Zannier, said he hoped hostilities would be halted by the deadline.
He also said combatants would have to do more to enable the OSCE mission, which makes ample use of drone cameras, to properly fulfil its mandate. “Aerial vehicles have been targeted more than once, monitors have been taken hostage, so we need a change of attitude,” he said.
The next step, to begin on Monday, is to form a sizeable buffer zone between Ukrainian forces and the Russian-backed rebels.