By Anton Zverev
Pro-Russian rebels pounded encircled Ukrainian government forces on Monday and Kiev said it would not pull back heavy guns while a truce was being violated, leaving a European-brokered peace deal on the verge of collapse a day after it took effect.
The European Union announced a new list of Ukrainian separatists and Russians targeted with sanctions, to which Moscow promised an “adequate” response.
Fighting had subsided in many parts of eastern Ukraine after a ceasefire came into force from Sunday, under a deal reached last week in marathon talks involving the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.
But the truce appears to have been stillborn in the part of the front where the most intensive fighting has taken place in recent weeks.
Rebels announced hours after it came into effect that they had no intention of observing the ceasefire at the town of Debaltseve, where they have been advancing since January and now have a Ukrainian unit all-but encircled.
Washington says the rebel operation around the town, which sits on a strategic railway hub, is being assisted by the Russian armed forces, which Moscow denies.
Reuters reporters near the front said Debaltseve was being relentlessly bombarded with artillery. At least six tanks as well as armoured personnel carriers and artillery could be seen in woods near Vuhlehirsk, 10 km (six miles) west of Debaltseve, which the rebels captured a week ago.
Military trucks headed along the main road in the direction of the town to regular bursts of shelling and the firing of Grad rockets and machineguns.
“You can hear there is no ceasefire,” said a rebel fighter with a black ski mask who gave his name as Scorpion, his nom de guerre, and blamed the fighting on Kiev’s forces. “Debaltseve is our land. And we will take Debaltseve.”
Kiev said its forces were shelled more than 100 times after the truce took effect. Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said government troops could not pull back their own heavy weapons, as set out in the agreement reached in the Belarussian capital Minsk, without a ceasefire that held.
“The pre-condition for withdrawal of heavy weapons is fulfilling Point One of the Minsk agreements – the ceasefire. One hundred and twelve attacks are not an indicator of a ceasefire. At the moment we are not ready to withdraw heavy weapons,” Lysenko told a news briefing in Kiev.
The military in Kiev said five of its soldiers had been killed and 25 wounded since the ceasefire took effect the previous day.
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said it was important that the withdrawal of heavy weapons begins as scheduled on Tuesday. Merkel was the driving force behind intensive diplomacy to end the war last week, flying to Kiev, Moscow and Washington before staying up all night for the talks in Minsk that produced Thursday’s deal.
The West says Putin, who has called eastern Ukraine “New Russia”, has sent troops and weapons to back the rebels. Moscow denies this and accuses the West of waging a proxy war in Ukraine to seek “regime change” in Russia.
NEW SANCTIONS LIST
Agreement on the truce raised hopes of ending a conflict that has killed more than 5,000 people.
Fighting began after the overthrow of a Moscow-backed president in Ukraine last February and Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula a month later.
An earlier ceasefire agreed last September collapsed when the rebels launched an advance last month. Western countries say they reserve the option of expanding economic sanctions on Russia over the crisis.
The EU’s new list of 19 people and nine organisations hit by asset freezes and travel bans was dominated by Ukrainian separatists but also targeted popular Russian singer Iosif Kobzon – sometimes dubbed Russia’s equivalent of Frank Sinatra – and two Russian deputy defence ministers.
“One thing is clear – the decision, which will be followed by an adequate response, runs contrary to common sense and will not help efforts to find a solution to the inter-Ukrainian conflict,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
Two separatist leaders said in a statement the rebels would pull out of the ceasefire if Kiev made any further moves to abandon Ukraine’s neutral status – also a red line for Moscow, which fears Ukraine might seek to join the NATO alliance.
“Any attempt by Kiev to move towards NATO or any other anti-Russian military alliance is unacceptable to us,” rebel representatives Denis Pushilin and Vladislav Deinego were quoted by the separatist news outlet DAN as saying. “In such an event we would immediately suspend cooperation with Kiev and would consider the Minsk agreement void.”
A rebel commander, Eduard Basurin, said Ukrainian troops had violated the ceasefire 27 times in the past 24 hours.
Ukraine’s military also said separatist rebels had shelled a district of Donetsk city at around 1000 GMT.
Tensions over Ukraine have also been stoked by Russian military exercises near the border with Ukraine in the past few months. A Defence Ministry official was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying Moscow had concluded the latest military exercises, involving the strategic missile forces.