Ukraine crisis: At least 25 dead as rebels seize more territory ahead of ceasefire deadline

In Ukraine's battle-ravaged eastern regions there was a fierce surge in fighting

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The Independent Online

Russian-backed rebels launched a deadly last-minute effort to seize more Ukrainian territory yesterday, including a strategic railway hub, before a ceasefire is meant to take effect at midnight Ukraine time tonight.

With a day left before the guns are meant to fall silent in Ukraine’s battle-ravaged eastern regions, there was a fierce surge in fighting as a land grab and continued shelling left at least 25 people dead.

The government-held railway town of Debaltseve, where Ukrainian troops are almost encircled, was on the receiving end of dozens of artillery and rocket salvos in the 24-hour period following the Minsk talks. All but a few thousand civilians have fled to areas away from the front.

The sole remaining major road linking the town to government-held territory appeared to have been cut with the apparent capture of the village of Lohvynove, which lies on the road just north of Debaltseve.

The Ukrainian National Guard unit engaged in battles around Lohvynove said that captured combatants had confirmed Russian troops were actively involved in the fighting. Elsewhere, by the Azov Sea in the south-east, Ukrainian government troops say they clawed back a handful of villages. Troops have denied reporters access to the areas at the centre of operations.

 

Separatist authorities said that government shelling killed three civilians and wounded five more in the rebel bastion, Luhansk.

The onslaught by both sides led diplomats to question why there was a grace period of more than 48 hours between Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine signing the peace accord in Minsk on Thursday morning and its implementation just after  10pm GMT  tonight.

The upsurge in violence added to scepticism in some European capitals, where leaders are wary of raising expectations given that a previous peace deal, also signed in Minsk, unravelled months after it was signed.

“We are cautious, we need to learn the lessons of the last year – after all this is Minsk 2,” said one diplomat, adding: “An agreement has been signed, a ceasefire is coming into play. One would hope that people could respect the agreement from the point at which it was signed.”

The head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which will monitor the ceasefire, said he hoped the fighting would calm. “We would really hope to see a decrease already,” said Lamberto Zannier.

Ukrainian officials warned on Thursday night, even as the ink was drying on the Minsk agreement, that a further 50 tanks, 40 missile launchers and 40 armoured vehicles had entered the country across the border from Russia – claims the Kremlin has denied.

The Russian economy has already been battered by EU and US sanctions first imposed after Moscow annexed Crimea last March. If the Minsk talks had failed, EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday may have considered wider sanctions against Russia.

Given the apparent success of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande’s last-ditch diplomatic effort with Mr Putin and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, deeper sanctions remained off the table. The EU did, however, agree push ahead with previously-agreed sanctions on 19 Russian and Ukrainian individuals and nine companies, and warned that more could follow without a resolution.

“We hold open the possibility, if these new agreements are not implemented, that we must take further measures,” said Ms Merkel.

EU leaders will be carefully watching each stage of the process. A senior official said: “What really matters at the end of the day is the ceasefire – whether there is fighting, whether people in Ukraine are dying or not.”

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