Pro-Russian rebels pounded encircled Ukrainian government forces and Kiev said it would not pull back heavy guns while a truce was being violated, leaving a European-brokered peace deal on the verge of collapse after it only just took effect.
The EU announced a new list of Ukrainian separatists and Russians targeted with sanctions, to which Moscow promised an “adequate” response.
Fighting had subsided in many parts of eastern Ukraine after a ceasefire came into force from Sunday, under a deal reached last week in marathon talks involving the leaders of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine.
However, the truce appears to have been stillborn in the part of the front where the most intensive fighting has taken place in recent weeks.
Rebels announced hours after it came into effect that they had no intention of observing the ceasefire at the town of Debaltseve, where they have been advancing since January and now have a Ukrainian unit all-but encircled.
Washington says the rebel operation around the town, which sits on a strategic railway hub, is being assisted by the Russian armed forces, which Moscow denies.
Witnesses near the front said Debaltseve was being relentlessly bombarded with artillery. At least six tanks as well as armored personnel carriers and artillery could be seen in woods near Vuhlehirsk, 10km west of Debaltseve, which the rebels captured a week ago.
Military trucks headed along the main road in the direction of the town to regular bursts of shelling and the firing of Grad rockets and machine guns.
“You can hear there is no ceasefire,” said a rebel fighter with a black ski mask who gave his name as Scorpion, his nom de guerre, and blamed the fighting on Kiev’s forces. “Debaltseve is our land. And we will take Debaltseve.”
Kiev said its forces were shelled more than 100 times after the truce took effect. Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said government troops could not pull back their own heavy weapons, as set out in the agreement reached in the Belarussian capital Minsk, without a ceasefire that held.
“The pre-condition for withdrawal of heavy weapons is fulfilling Point One of the Minsk agreements — the ceasefire; 112 attacks are not an indicator of a ceasefire. At the moment we are not ready to withdraw heavy weapons,” Lysenko told a news briefing in Kiev.
The military in Kiev said five of its soldiers had been killed and 25 wounded since the ceasefire took effect the previous day.
In Berlin, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said it was important that the withdrawal of heavy weapons begins as scheduled. Merkel was the driving force behind intensive diplomacy to end the war last week.