Ukraine fighting rages ahead of ceasefire

FEROCIOUS fighting raged in Ukraine on Saturday, threatening a ceasefire deal as Kiev and the US accused Russia of fuelling a rebel onslaught to grab territory before the truce started.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned that continuing bombardments that killed dozens had plunged a peace plan reached in Minsk after marathon talks with Russian leader Vladimir Putin into “big danger” before it even got off the ground.

“After Minsk the offensive operation of Russia intensified significantly,” Poroshenko said late Friday, speaking in English.

“After what we have reached in Minsk, it is an attack not only on Ukrainian civilians, but also on the Minsk results,” he added, following the shelling of the town of Artemivsk that killed three people including a seven-year-old.

The ceasefire, due to take effect from 2200 GMT Saturday, will be the first test of the commitment by Kiev and pro-Russian separatists to the freshly-inked peace plan.

But with Kiev and Washington claiming Russia was spearheading a separatist push to conquer more territory and government forces digging in, there were fears over the truce would be observed at all.

The UN Security Council is expected to meet on Sunday for an emergency session to shore up the ceasefire deal, diplomats said.

The United States said the Russian military had deployed large amounts of artillery and multiple rocket launcher systems and was using them to shell Ukrainian positions.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US had received reports of heavy weapons being moved into eastern Ukraine from Russia over the past few days, and more apparently on the way.

“This is clearly not in the spirit of this week’s agreement,” Psaki told reporters.

Kiev and the West accuse Russia of pouring arms and troops into Ukraine to shore up the rebels. The Kremlin has consistently denied the charges, but the pro-Moscow rebels boast the modern heavy weaponry of a regular army and frequently outgun Ukrainian forces.

US President Barack Obama has warned he could start arms supplies to Ukraine if the new peace deal collapses.

Ukraine’s military said Saturday that rebel forces had tried overnight to storm government positions on the edge of the strategic battleground town of Debaltseve, where Kiev denies rebels have trapped thousands of its troops.

Deputy defence minister Petro Mekhed claimed Friday that rebels want to “raise their flag” over the vital railway hub, scene of the most bitter recent fighting, as well as over the strategic port Mariupol ahead of the ceasefire.

Meanwhile, separatists said Saturday that “ceaseless shelling” had killed at least two civilians in their stronghold Donetsk, adding to the 28 government soldiers and civilians left dead in the past two days.

“This morning there was more shooting than normal. It is always the same before a ceasefire,” Donetsk resident Marina, 52, told AFP.

The surging fighting came after rebels and Kiev agreed to the wide-ranging plan on Thursday following tortuous talks in Minsk between the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned Russia that the EU, which has already slapped Moscow with sanctions over the crisis, is not ruling out further measures if the truce fails.

The G7 nations — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — also voiced concern about the violence and the build-up of weapons in eastern Ukraine.

The G7 warned it was ready to “intensify the costs” for anyone who broke the terms of the agreement.

The fragile agreement is seen as the best hope of ending the conflict, which has killed at least 5,480 people and ratcheted East-West tensions to highs not seen since the Cold War, but scepticism remains high after the collapse of a similar previous peace plan.

Rebel leaders — seen by the West as Kremlin puppets — have said the new deal raises hopes of peace but warned there would be no more talking if it fails.

The new Minsk agreement is broadly similar to an earlier failed deal in September and is fraught with potential pitfalls.

Both sides have to start withdrawing heavy weapons from the frontline within two days of the start of the ceasefire to establish a buffer zone between 50 to 140 kilometres (31-87 miles) wide, depending on the range of the weapons.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said it “stands ready” to monitor the implementation of the ceasefire and pull-back of heavy weapons and was boosting its number of observers on the ground to 350.

Under the Minsk agreement, Kiev will also begin retaking control over the approximately 400-kilometre (250 mile) stretch of Russia’s border with rebel-held Ukraine, but only after local elections are held.

The border is entirely under Russian and pro-Russian rebel control and is used, according to Kiev, as a conduit for separatist supplies.

Separatist-held territories will be granted a degree of autonomy to be established through talks.

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