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Pro-Russian rebels claim seizure of Debaltseve rail hub

Kiev accused pro-Russian separatists of violating a Europe-backed ceasefire after the rebels said Tuesday that they had seized most of the key railway hub of Debaltseve, the focus of days of fighting with Ukrainian troops.

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The Ukrainian presidential office on Tuesday called on the European Union and NATO to condemn the Russia-backed rebels for violating the cease-fire after the rebels claimed to have taken the key transportation hub of Debaltseve.

Russian news agencies quoted Valery Chaly, chief of the Ukrainian presidential administration, as saying that Kiev wants the EU and NATO to “resolutely condemn” the separatists for violating the deals brokered by European leaders last week.

Rebel commander Vladimir Kononov said on Russian television that most of Debaltseve was under separatist control and urged the Ukrainian troops to surrender.

“Their only choice is to leave behind weaponry, lay down arms and surrender,” he said.

Speaking while on a state visit to Hungry on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the rebels should allow Ukranian government forces safe passage out of the encircled town of Debaltseve and that Kiev should allow its troops to lay down their weapons.

The rebels' announcement came after fierce fighting focused on Debaltseve, a government-held town surrounded by rebel forces that both sides claim to be on their side of the ceasefire line. The issue was not resolved under a ceasefire agreement negotiated last week by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France.

Associated Press reporters saw artillery rounds fired Tuesday from Ukrainian government positions at rebel positions around Debaltseve. Sustained shelling was heard in the area all morning, some coming from Grad rocket launchers.

Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters that the separatists continued to attack government positions overnight around Debaltseve and that the pull-out hinged on the ceasefire being fully observed. He said at least five troops were killed and nine injured in the past 24 hours in the war zone.

The war in eastern Ukraine has already killed more than 5,600 people and displaced more than a million, the United Nations said on Monday. It has also left the country’s industrial heartland in ruins.

Pull-out deadline passes

Under the ceasefire agreement, a Tuesday deadline was set for both sides to begin pulling back weaponry from the front line.

At least one separatist leader claimed that his troops had begun to withdraw their heavy weapons. A rebel military official, Eduard Basurin, announced in a televised briefing that they “will take the initiative” and begin to pull back heavy weaponry from the front.

The Ukrainian government, however, insisted on a comprehensive ceasefire before pulling back its weaponry.

The ceasefire deal, which was brokered by European leaders last week and went into effect early Sunday, specified that the pull-out should begin on the second day after the parties stop fighting.

This condition has not been met, Lysenko said. “As soon as the fire ceases ... we will be ready to begin the withdrawal,” he said.

Fighting has stopped or subsided in some parts of war-torn eastern Ukraine, however. Basurin said Tuesday the separatists had not seen any violations of the ceasefire in the area around the rebel stronghold of Donetsk since 8pm local time on Monday.

Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told a briefing in Geneva on Tuesday that the UN is “alarmed” by reports of continued shelling.

“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.”

Another rebel leader also claimed to be starting a withdrawal.

“I was at the front line last night, and our tanks, our artillery were pulling back,” Igor Plotnitsky, the leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, northeast of Debaltseve, was quoted as saying by the Russian news agency Tass.

He added that he “expects the same from Ukraine”.

Due to security issues, his claims could not be immediately verified.

Lysenko said the Ukrainian troops “have not noticed any such actions” on the ground.

The separatists were expected to discuss the withdrawal of the weaponry later Tuesday with representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the group charged with monitoring the cease-fire, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

In a phone call late on Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appealed to Putin to use his influence on the separatists to ensure that they stop the fighting.

Merkel’s office reported that the three leaders agreed on “concrete steps to enable an observation” of the situation in Debaltseve by the OSCE.

OSCE representatives could not get to Debaltseve on Monday because of the heavy fighting there.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

 

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