A European-brokered peace deal in Ukraine seems close to collapse as each side accuses the other of violations. Fierce fighting is still raging around the railway hub of Debaltseve.
A two-day truce in eastern Ukraine brokered last week was under threat on Monday as a number of violations were reported throughout the region and a fierce battle continued for control of the strategic transport hub of Debaltseve.
Kyiv said its forces had been shelled more than 100 times since the truce in eastern Ukraine went into effect, and a rebel commander, Eduard Basurin, said Ukrainian troops had violated the ceasefire 27 times in the past 24 hours.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose mediation efforts were instrumental in bringing about Thursday's peace deal signed in Minsk, told reporters in the German capital, Berlin, that the situation in Ukraine was "fragile."
"It was always clear that much remains to be done. And I have always said that there are no guarantees that what we are trying to do will succeed. It will be an extremely difficult path," Merkel said.
The worst of the violence has been reported around Debaltseve, a town of strategic importance between the two rebel-held cities of Lugansk and Donetsk, where thousands of government troops are surrounded by heavily armed insurgents.
The rebels said soon after the ceasefire came into force that they would not observe it in Debaltseve, which they have had in their sights since January.
An offer by the insurgents on Monday to give the Ukrainian forces trapped in the town a safe corridor out of it if they disarmed was rejected by Kyiv.
"There are the Minsk agreements, according to which Debaltseve is ours. We will not leave," a military spokesman, Vladislav Selenyov, said.
A municipal official who escaped from the city said there were some 5,000 civilians also trapped there with little food and water. A team of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has been tasked with monitoring the truce, was unable to enter the town owing to the hostilities.
Amid the mutual accusations of breaking the truce in eastern Ukraine, both Kyiv and the rebels have said they are not yet ready to fulfil an agreement to withdraw heavy weapons from the frontline that is meant to go into force by midnight (2200 UTC) on Monday.
More EU sanctions
Fighting began in eastern Ukraine after Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown amid massive street protests in February, followed by Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula a month later.
Many Western countries accuse Russia of aiding the rebels with troops and weapons, something Moscow has always denied.
On Monday, the European Union announced further sanctions on Moscow, adding several Russian officials to its blacklist, which entails a travel ban and a freeze of assets held in the bloc. Fourteen Ukrainian rebel military and political figures were also blacklisted, along with nine organizations.
Russia's foreign ministry has warned of an "appropriate response" to the extended sanctions. Russia has already banned European food imports in retaliation for the sanctions that were already in place.
The ten-month-old conflict has so far killed more than 5,300 people, according to the United Nations.
tj/msh (Reuters, AFP)