Fighting persisted on Friday in eastern Ukraine as Russian-backed separatists mounted a major, sustained offensive to capture a strategic railway hub ahead of a weekend cease-fire deadline. At least 25 people were killed across the region, officials reported.
Clashes appeared only to have increased since a peace agreement was sealed Thursday in the Belarusian capital of Minsk by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France. German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautiously described the cease-fire that takes effect early Sunday deal as “a glimmer of hope.”
But the pending cease-fire only appeared to spark a last-minute grab for territory that left at least 25 people dead. 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, Ukrainian military officials said.
A ceasefire is due to come into effect on Sunday (February 15) under the agreement, which also envisages a withdrawal of the heavy weapons responsible for many of the 5,000 casualties in the conflict that broke out almost a year ago.
“So I am already concerned that we have seen this morning continuation of hostilities. We really expect these hostilities to terminate by the deadline that was set in Minsk. And we would really hope to see a decrease already between now and that moment,” OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier told a news conference in Kiev.
“It is important to keep in mind that withdrawal of heavy weapons does not mean demilitarising of area unfortunately. (PAUSING FOR TRANSLATION) So there will be a need for further steps and I think we should really look over time at the situation whether there is military disengagement, but we are not there yet,” Zannier added.
Kiev said pro-Russian rebels had built up their forces across separatist-held zones since the deal and both sides accused each other of killing civilians.
Two people were killed and six wounded when a shell hit a cafe in the Kiev-controlled town of Shchastya near rebel-held Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, a local official said, adding that other shells had struck elsewhere in the town.
The OSCE chief said that although he can’t say Russian troops are present in eastern Ukraine – a claim Moscow always denied – but he said there are clearly fighters on the ground who came from Russia.
“So if you ask me if I have seen units of Russian army moving in that territory, we have not. But if you ask me if we have seen fighters and weapons that seem to come from Russia, the answer is yes,” Zannier said.
The United States and Europe have threatened further sanctions against Moscow if the rebels seize more territory.
Russia denies arming the rebels and sending troops to fight alongside them, despite what Ukraine and its Western allies say is overwhelming evidence.
Report compiled with information from The Associated Press and Reuters.