Ukraine crisis: pro-Russian rebels launch all-out assault on Debaltseve

« We have to respond to fire, to work on destroying the enemy’s fighting
positions, » he said. « We do not have the right [to stop]. It is a
moral thing, » he told Reuters.

While the ceasefire that came into effect on Sunday night has silenced the
guns on some sections of the front, fighting at key flash points, including
Debaltseve and the coastal town of Shirokyno, has intensified.

Worsening battles at the two flash points prompted
both sides to announce Monday that they would not fulfil commitments to
withdraw heavy weapons
out of range of the front lines – the second
stage of the Minsk peace road map.

Fighters with the Donetsk People’s Republic army heading near Debaltseve

In a grim irony, much of Tuesday’s violence unfolded within earshot of Organisation
for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers trying to negotiate
to the town to monitor the « ceasefire » in the area.

In a closed meeting in the town of Soledar, about 30 miles north of
Debaltseve, representatives of the OSCE, Russian and Ukrainian military
officers from a joint working group, and separatist leaders including Mr
Pushilin, negotiated via video link.

Outside the meeting, a near constant barrage of artillery fire could be heard
from the south. By early afternoon, a pillar of black smoke could been seen
rising from beyond the horizon in the direction of Debaltseve.

Separatist forces refused to allow monitors into the town on the first day of
the ceasefire on Sunday. The meeting on Tuesday ended without a deal on
access being announced.

Shelling on roads near the town made it impossible to tell exactly who
controls which areas of the town, but reports from civilians trapped inside
suggested the fighting was going the separatists way.

A Ukrainian serviceman stands on top of an armoured vehicle close to a
OSCE car in Soledar (AFP)

The « defence minister » of the separatist Donetsk republic, Vladimir
Kononov, told Russian news outlet LifeNews that 80 per cent of the town was
now in rebel hands.

Maxim, a former fireman from Debaltseve who fled the town as fighting
intensified two weeks ago, said friends confirmed that the Russian-backed
forces had fought their way into the city.

« The [Ukrainian] national guard have been pushed out of the railway
station. Now they are in parts of the town centre and there is heavy
shelling, » he said, after speaking to a friend trapped inside the town
on Tuesday.

By evening, rebels said they had taken full control of the strategic railway
junction, which is the objective of a separatist offensive that has lasted
nearly a month.

Government officials said « bandits » had taken control of some parts
of the city, but that « street fighting » continued between
Ukrainian troops and separatists backed by tanks and artillery.

« Our troops are holding their positions, and they are well within their
rights to return fire and hold the positions that they have held for several
months, » said Andriy Lysenko, a military spokesman.

Kiev admitted that some soldiers had been taken prisoner, but denied reports
that large numbers of troops had surrendered.

Separatist officials have publicly offered to open a « green corridor »
to allow the nearly surrounded Ukrainians in the town to leave, provided
they leave their weapons behind. Ukrainian officials have so far rejected
the proposal.

Unconfirmed reports said Alexander Zakharchenko, the head of the
self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, was wounded in the battle.

Mr Zakharchenko suffered a bullet wound to the leg while running across a
street during combat in Debaltseve, according to pro-separatist Russian

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