Deadly fighting between Ukrainian forces and separatist rebels continued yesterday, as foreign ministers scrambled to save a ceasefire deal supposed to come into effect almost a week ago.
The rebels fired on Ukrainian positions nearly 50 times over 24 hours, as reports suggested Russia was sending more tanks into Ukraine.
The fighting came a day after the Russian-backed rebels captured the key rail hub of Debaltseve, prompting observers to raise concerns that weeks of high-level diplomacy aimed at producing a ceasefire and peace plan had simply allowed the rebels to grab more territory.
French and German leaders, who oversaw marathon peace talks last week between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine, have said they are determined to salvage the ceasefire agreement and keep the two sides talking despite the fall of Debaltseve.
Pope Francis joined the calls for the ceasefire to be respected and said he was praying for peace, during a meeting yesterday with Ukrainian bishops who were visiting Rome.
Despite the ceasefire, the village of Kurakhovo, west of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, was repeatedly hit by fire from Grad rockets, while the village of Berdyansk, near the key port city of Mariupol, was hit overnight by artillery and mortar fire, Lieutenant-Colonel Anatoliy Stelmakh said.
He added that Russia was still moving military equipment into Ukraine, including ten tanks driven into Novoazovsk, near Mariupol.
Ukrainian forces fear rebels are moving to take Mariupol, a government-held city on the Sea of Azov between mainland Russia and the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed last March. Taking that city could allow the rebels to create a land bridge between Russia and Crimea, which at the moment have no direct links.
Ukrainian soldiers who made it out of Debaltseve alive have described weeks of harrowing rebel shelling, followed by a chaotic, hasty retreat.
Ukrainian officials said 13 soldiers had been killed, 157 wounded in the fighting, 90 taken prisoner and 82 had been declared missing – but the shell-shocked soldiers themselves spoke of many more casualties.
“Starting at night, they would fire at us just to stop us from sleeping. They did this all night,” one soldier named Andrei said after fleeing Debaltseve. “Then in the morning, they would attack, wave after wave. They did this constantly for three weeks.”
The war in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 5,600 people and forced over a million to flee their homes since fighting began in April, a month after Russia annexed Crimea.
Russia denies arming the rebels or supplying fighters, but western nations and Nato have highlighted satellite pictures of Russian military equipment in eastern Ukraine.
In Kiev, nationalists have criticised the government for allowing Debaltseve to fall and not providing enough support for its defence forces.