A MAJOR rebel offensive is looming in eastern Ukraine, which has seen a surge in fighting despite diplomatic efforts to secure a lasting peace deal.
One separatist leader said his pro-Russian rebels have launched a multi-pronged offensive and will not join further peace talks – but left unclear whether they would respect this week’s agreement to pull back heavy weapons from the front line.
A senior Nato official said the Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine have been beefed up and have pushed further west.
US Air Force General Philip Breedlove said air defence and electronic warfare equipment have been detected in the area that, in the past, coincided with the incursion of Russian troops into Ukraine.
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Russian officials insisted they do not support the rebels, but Western military officials say the sheer number of heavy weapons under rebel control belies that claim.
The UN human rights agency, meanwhile, yesterday raised its estimate of the conflict’s overall death toll to nearly 5,100 since April due to the escalation of fighting.
A pro-Russian insurgency flared up in April in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. In May the rebels declared independence from the central government in Kiev.
Separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko said rebel fighters will fight for more territory and were advancing in several directions to push Ukrainian forces back to the edge of the Donetsk region. Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city, suffered mortar attacks this week and its airport was the scene of fighting that killed at least 30 people.
“Attempts to talk about a ceasefire will no longer be undertaken by our side,” Mr Zakharchenko said.
Any rebel advances would further undermine a tentative peace deal forged this week in Berlin at a meeting of foreign ministers from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. Those negotiations ended with an agreement to uphold a demarcation line drawn up in September.
The plan calls for Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists to pull back their heavy arms nine miles on either side of the line, although there was no agreement on a withdrawal of troops.
Battles intensified last weekend over Donetsk Airport, which has been reduced to rubble. Rebels have control of the terminal, although fighting is still ongoing nearby.
At the international economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, Russia’s first deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov vowed that Moscow would not be cowed by the sanctions imposed by the West over its actions in Ukraine.
He warned leaders against trying to topple Russian president Vladimir Putin, reflecting the Kremlin’s view that EU and US sanctions against it are aimed at regime change.
Mr Shuvalov said yesterday: “When a Russian feels any foreign pressure, he will never give up his leader. We will survive any hardship in the country – east less food, use less electricity.”
The Russian rouble has lost half its value in recent months because of sanctions and a plunge in world oil prices.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko appeared to still be holding out hope for a new ceasefire, but said stern retribution would await anybody violating the peace. After a speech Wednesday at Davos, he rushed home to deal with the escalating fighting.
He said: “If the enemy doesn’t want to abide by the ceasefire, if he doesn’t want to put an end to the suffering of peaceful people, Ukrainian villages and town, we will smash them in the teeth.”