Ukraine’s president has warned that an agreement to end the fighting ravaging the country is in “great danger” just hours before the ceasefire is due to take effect.
Battle's raged on Saturday, as Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces rocketed each other, with shelling extending far beyond any front lines, as the clock ticked down to the agreed ceasefire of midnight.
Russian president Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko signed an agreement on Thursday morning, after 16 hours of laborious talks, raising hopes for the end of a conflict that has claimed over 5,000 lives.
But today, president Poroshenko accused Mr Putin of “significantly increasing” the Russian offensive after reports emerged of 40 tanks and almost 100 heavily armoured vehicles and missile launchers crossing the Ukrainian-Russian border yesterday.
Shelling has been heard in rebel-held city Donetsk today, with correspondents reporting that fierce fighting has continued around Debaltseve.
Debaltseve is a key transport hub in the east of the country. Although it is presently held by Ukrainian forces, the town has been surrounded by rebel forces in recent days.
Kiev claims that the pro-Russian separatists have received orders to take both Debaltseve and Mariupol before the ceasefire is implanted.
In the 24-hour period in the run-up to the ceasefire at midnight this evening, the transport hub has been battered by rocket and artillery salvos.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
Shells rained down Saturday afternoon on the government-held town of Artemivsk, 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Debaltseve, striking a school, which rapidly burned to the ground.
Associated Press reporters also saw an artillery barrage near the town of Svitlodarsk, 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Debaltseve, as well as considerable movement of Ukrainian forces' armored vehicles and rocket launchers along the road.
An undated satellite image released Saturday by the Ukrainian government showed a 5-kilometer (3-mile) long cloud of black smoke hovering above Svitlodarsk, evidence of what it said was the scale of rebel shelling.
Russia has repeatedly denied repeated Western claims that it has sent troops and equipment to the rebels. But on Saturday, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, posted on Twitter what he said were satellite photos showing Russian artillery systems near the town of Lomuvatka, 20 kilometers (12 miles) northeast of Debaltseve.
The Kremlin has continued to deny its involvement in the conflict, claiming Russia would act only as a guarantor in the peace process and could not affect developments on the ground.
Approximately 26 people are thought to have died in the region over the last few days.
Although many civilians have fled – a recent UN report claimed nearly one million people have been internally displaced because of the conflict – more than a dozen civilians are reported to have died in the recent shelling.
Events are an eerie shadowing of the failed September ceasefire agreement.
Many in the country fear the coming ceasefire will not hold.
Mr Putin and Mr Poroshenko are expected to discuss the issues over the phone this weekend. The leaders of France and Germany, who were also present during talks earlier this week, will also participate in the calls.
The UN Security Council is expected to meet on Sunday for emergency talks.
Additional reporting by Press Association
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