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U.S. Urges Russia, Separatists To 'Immediately' Halt Ukraine Attacks

Ukrainian armed forces near Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine, on February 16.
Ukrainian armed forces near Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine, on February 16.

The United States has said it is "gravely concerned" by the deteriorating situation in and around the strategic town of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine despite a European-brokered cease-fire.

The State Department in a February 16 statement called on "Russia and the separatists it backs to halt all attacks immediately" and engage with the OSCE monitoring mission to implement the cease-fire.

Rebels said soon after the cease-fire brokered in Minsk last week came into effect February 15 that they had no intention of observing it at Debaltseve, where they have been advancing since last month and now have several thousand Ukrainian troops all but encircled.

Kyiv says Ukrainian forces have been fired on 112 times by Russia-backed separatists in the past 24 hours.

Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said on February 16 Ukraine was "fully observing" the cease-fire, but he accused "terrorists from Donetsk and Luhansk" of staging "artillery attacks, mortar attacks, and Grad [rocket systems] strikes."

A Ukrainian military spokesman was quoted by Reuters as saying five service personnel have been killed and 25 wounded since the cease-fire took effect.

Debaltseve is within a narrow strip of land in the region of Donestk that is still under nominal Ukrainian government control in the midst of territory controlled by separatists.

On February 16, the rebels said they would open a safe corridor for Ukrainian forces out of Debaltseve on condition that they surrender the territory and lay down their weapons.

The offer was rejected by the Ukrainian military, with spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov saying government troops would not leave because the town was located inside territory under Ukrainian control in accordance with the cease-fire deal reached last week.

A French official said that President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke on the telephone on February 16 and expressed concerns about the continued fighting at Debaltseve and "also expressed the wish that the OSCE observers have a free access to continue their work on the ground."

Elsewhere, both sides said they would not begin pulling back heavy weapons from the front line because of the continued attacks.

Pulling back tanks, artillery, and rockets from the front line in Ukraine's east is scheduled to take place over three weeks beginning at midnight, local time, on February 17 as the second phase of the truce signed in Minsk last week.

Ukrainian spokesman Seleznyov said there was "no question" at the moment of Ukraine withdrawing its heavy arms to create a buffer zone that was intended to stretch up to 140 kilometers.

In Donetsk, Eduard Basurin, an official of the defense ministry of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic said, "If the Ukrainian Army does not stop shooting and violating the Minsk agreement, then the forces of the Donetsk People's Republic will not withdraw their arms."

Meanwhile, in Brussels the European Union added two Russian deputy defense ministers and two lawmakers -- along with 15 separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk -- to its travel-ban and asset-freeze blacklist for "undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine."

Among the 19 people who now will be under a visa ban and have their assets in the EU frozen are Russian First Deputy Defense Minister Arkady Bakhin and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, as well as the deputy chief of the Russian general staff of the armed forces, Andrei Kartapolov.

Two State Duma members -- including popular singer Iosif Kobzon -- and 15 separatists from the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics are also blacklisted.

The Public Movement Novorossiya is among the entities listed together with eight separatist fighting units, including the Cossack National Guard.

The EU decided to add to its sanction list after the January 24 shelling of the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which killed at least 29 people. The list now includes 151 individuals and 37 entities in Ukraine and Russia.

The list now includes 151 individuals and 37 entities in Ukraine and Russia.

Moscow swiftly reacted to the announcement on February 16 saying the EU had contradicted "common sense" by imposing new sanctions one day after the start of a cease-fire in the conflict between Kiev and Russian-backed rebels. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Moscow will respond to the extended sanctions list "adequately."

The cease-fire was negotiated by Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France to put an end to the conflict that has claimed nearly 5,500 lives over the past 10 months.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters
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