Ukraine Violence Escalates As Truce Talks Fail

DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine -- Ukraine’s nine-month conflict plunged further into deadly violence on Saturday, as Russia-backed rebels pressed their offensive to take the Ukrainian-held city of Debaltseve and officials failed to stop the bloodshed with a new round of cease-fire talks.

People carry their belongings as they walk to a bus to leave the town of Debaltseve, Ukraine, on Saturday, after fighting intensified.

A shaky peace agreement brokered in September largely stopped the exchange of territory on the battlefield in east Ukraine and dialed down the scale of fighting.

But the pact faltered almost immediately and failed to stem the violence in full.

Now the clock has turned back entirely on Ukraine’s battle with Russia-backed separatists, bringing a return of full-scale warfare.

Pitched battles for towns, the likes of which east Ukraine hasn’t seen since last summer, have sent locals scrambling in the dead of winter for safety and a way out.

At least 60 civilians have been killed amid the renewed violence since last weekend.

As the rebels press their latest offensive, the losses for Kiev are beginning to mount.

The Ukrainian military lost 15 servicemen in the past 24 hours, officials said Saturday, marking one of the worst one-day death tolls for the country’s armed forces since the cease-fire was signed.

The rebels haven’t provided regular data on their losses.

The latest three-hour round of talks yielded no result, and the sides blamed each other for “ultimatums” disrupting the negotiations.

“The consultations on the plan of implementation of Minsk agreements ... were derailed as the [original] signatories failed to arrive,” a Ukrainian envoy, former president Leonid Kuchma, was quoted by the Interfax-Ukraine news agency as saying.

The rebel envoys who did appear refused to discuss a plan for a new truce and heavy weapon withdrawal, Mr. Kuchma said.

Kiev demanded the original signatories, rebel leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, arrive, while the rebel envoys questioned the authority of the Ukrainian envoy, Mr. Kuchma.

The parties had hoped to sign a new pact agreeing to the withdrawal of heavy weapons, the unrestricted supply of basic goods and humanitarian aid and the release of detainees, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has been brokering the talks.

While the talks were still under way Saturday, the battlefield exploded with violence in and around Debaltseve, a critical transport hub between the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk that the separatists have been trying to wrest from Ukrainian forces.

As explosion after explosion rocked the Ukrainian-held city, residents tried to board minivans, buses and even strangers’ cars in an attempt to speed away to safety.

Ukrainian authorities say they are evacuating residents, but so far resources have been limited, and thousands of people remain at home in Debaltseve and other towns being pounded daily by rockets. 

Debaltseve has turned into the focal point of a new rebel offensive that the Russia-backed militants announced after repelling Ukrainian forces from Donetsk’s airport last week.

“The confrontation is severe there, and the situation is constantly changing,” Ukrainian security spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko said of Debaltseve.

He said self-propelled howitzers were constantly changing their position after launching regular attacks on the city.

Vyacheslav Abroskin, Ukrainian regional police chief for Donetsk, said in a statement on Facebook that artillery fire was smashing civilian areas of Debaltseve, leaving 12 people dead in recent hours.

He said the city and areas around it had no heat, electricity or running water.

“City police officers can’t reach the wreckage because of the neverending artillery blasts,” Mr. Abroskin wrote.

“Volunteers and the police are removing civilians and whole families under fire from the militants.”

Meanwhile, footage emerged of a bloody Jan. 29 battle for the town of Vuhlehirsk, a few miles down the road from Debaltseve.

Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the rebels in Donetsk, claimed his forces had wrested control of the town on Friday.

At the time, officials in Kiev said Ukrainian forces had been repelled from the town but that they were still battling to retake control.

In the footage, posted by the British Broadcasting Corp., Russia-backed rebel fighters are seen bolting across the snow in the town center through the dark amid flaming buildings, dodging a barrage of gunfire and window-shattering artillery blasts.

On Saturday, there were signs the area of fighting was expanding.

The sound of impacts from multiple rocket launchers rattled windows, shook buildings and set off car alarms in the city of Artemivsk, a Ukrainian-held stronghold 30 miles north that until recently had been relatively quiet for months.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Fran├žois Hollande convened a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday to discuss the resurgence of violence in Ukraine.

In a statement, the Kremlin said the leaders expressed hope that the latest round of negotiations in Minsk would result in an immediate cease-fire and the pullback of heavy artillery from the front lines. 

Source: The Wall Street Journal