The senior Ukrainian rebel commander Eduard Basurin has said that pro-Russian separatists have gained control of more than 80 per cent of the eastern Ukrainian transport hub of Debaltseve, which has been gripped by fighting despite a ceasefire deal coming into effect on Sunday.
The Ukrainian defence ministry earlier acknowledged that several government soldiers had been ambushed and taken prisoner in the city but denied rebel claims that they had seized control.
The ministry said street fighting continued in Debaltseve. It did not say how many soldiers had been seized in the ambush. Earlier today the Ukrainian presidential office called on the European Union and Nato to condemn the Russia-backed rebels for violating the ceasefire. Russian news agencies quoted Valeriy Chaly, chief of the Ukrainian presidential administration, as saying that Kiev wants the EU and Nato “resolutely to condemn” separatist violation of the deals.
The war in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 5,600 people and displaced more than a million, the United Nations said on Monday.
The rebel commander Vladimir Kononov claimed on Russian television that most of Debaltseve was now under the control of the separatists and urged the remaining Ukrainian troops to surrender.
The announcement by the rebels came after fierce fighting that appeared to be focused on Debaltseve. Both sides claim the strategic town is on their side of the ceasefire line. The issue was not resolved under the ceasefire agreement negotiated last week by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France.
Today a deadline passed under the agreement for both sides to begin pulling back heavy weaponry from the front line. Mr Basurin announced in a televised briefing that the rebels would begin to pull back their big guns. He did not provide a timeline for the operation. Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe were unable to reach Debaltseve on Monday because of the fighting. The Ukrainian government, however, insisted on a ceasefire before pulling back its weaponry.
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
The Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said the pullout hinged on the ceasefire being fully observed. The deal specifies that the pullout begins on the second day after the parties stop fighting. This condition has not been met, Mr Lysenko said.
“As soon as the fire ceases... we will be ready to begin the withdrawal,” he said.
Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told a briefing in Geneva that the UN is “alarmed” by reports of continued shelling in the areas and has not yet been able to get reliable information on the casualties there and the well-being of civilians.
“It is unclear how many civilians are still there,” he said. “We are particularly concerned about the civilians trapped in the area – we believe there may be a few thousand hiding in cellars, struggling to get food, water and other basic necessities.”