Ukraine and Moscow-backed rebels have failed to withdraw heavy weapons from the eastern Ukrainian battlefields, calling into question a ceasefire agreement that only came into force on Saturday.
Fierce fighting continued in eastern Ukraine, in particular around the city of Debaltseve, where house-to-house fighting has been reported as rebels try to defeat beleaguered government troops defending the key strategic town.
The Ukrainian government accused rebels of launching 164 attacks on its troops since the ceasefire began, and said as a result it would not be pulling back its heavy weapons such as artillery.
Under the agreement signed after marathon talks in Minsk last week, both sides should have started removing their big guns on Monday.
The failure to do so has prompted speculation that the truce may suffer the same of fate as an earlier agreement.
That one, signed in September, managed to limit fighting for a while until it was torn apart when rebels launched an offensive earlier this year.
“At the moment there is fierce fighting on the outskirts of the town. There are clashes around the station. But our forces are holding their positions and they are completely within their rights to open fire in response,” a Ukrainian military spokesman, said yesterday.
He added that rebels had repeatedly broken the truce agreement, and that “despite the ceasefire announcement, the enemy had been preparing for active combat operations”.
He also accused the rebels of using artillery and armour in their push to capture the town.
In response, Eduard Basurin, a rebel leader, claimed his forces had captured 80 per cent of Debaltseve and that they were now conducting “mopping up” operations. But rebel leaders also stressed their forces had been subjected to attacks and so they would not withdraw their heavy weaponry until Ukraine stopped shelling their positions.
The worsening state of the truce agreement prompted calls for all sides to stick to it.
An European Commission spokeswoman said: “We recall once again the need for all sides to adhere strictly to the provisions of the package signed last week and carry out its measures without delay.
“We remain concerned about the continued fighting in and around Debaltseve.”
She added that Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels have “to stop any military operation and to start the withdrawing today of heavy weaponry”.
The United States said it was “gravely concerned” by the fighting at Debaltseve, and that it was monitoring reports of a new column of Russian military equipment heading into Ukraine.
“We call on Russia and the separatists it backs to halt all attacks immediately,” said a US state department spokeswoman.
Many in the West back Kiev’s claims that Russia is sustaining the rebel offensive by providing enough men and equipment to out-gun the Ukrainian armed forces and to put them at military and strategic disadvantage. Moscow has denied any involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine, with Russian president Vladimir Putin preferring to call the conflict a “civil war”. and putting most of the blame for it on the government in Kiev. The ferocity of the fighting and the apparent determination of the Moscow-backed rebels to capture Debaltseve, despite the truce agreement has raised concerns in Kiev that the separatists will soon be entrenched in, and control of, a significant chunk of Ukrainian territory.