EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini has said that the "spiral of ever-increasing violence in eastern Ukraine needs to stop" and blamed pro-Russian rebels for a recent escalation that she said was causing "great human suffering."
In a statement on February 4, Mogherini said that "the shelling of civilians, wherever it happens, is a grave violation of international humanitarian law."
But she reserved her sharpest words for the pro-Russian rebels, who have been fighting to seize the town of Debaltseve from embattled government forces and have threatened to attempt to take control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in their entirety.
"The fighting provoked by the continued separatist offensive, notably around Debaltseve, is causing great human suffering and undermines all efforts aimed at a political solution," Mogherini said.
She joined the OSCE's chairman in a call for an immediate cease-fire in the Debaltseve area, saying a truce should last at least three days.
"Residents of Ukraine's Donbas strive to flee the region and the humanitarian crisis continues to worsen dramatically in the coldest period of the year," she said, using a term that refers to the industrial portion of eastern Ukraine where separatists hold the provincial capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk.
"Civilians need to be able to leave the conflict zone safely," the statement said.
Mogherini also repeated calls for the withdrawal of artillery from residential areas.
Russian Role In Ukraine
The U.S. ambassador to NATO on February 4 detailed the role of Russian troops that he says have been active in eastern Ukraine since the conflict began there last April.
Douglas Lute said in Brussels that Russian specialists had a "command-and-control role" in eastern Ukraine and were operating sophisticated military equipment that would be difficult for untrained pro-Russian separatists to use.
Lute said there was a "spike" last August "in direct Russian intervention in the form of Russian military units," including "Russian battalions as coherent formations deployed into Ukraine."
But he said another large-scale direct Russian military intervention was not thought to be "imminent."
Meanwhile, European Union ambassadors on February 4 discussed proposals for an expanded sanctions list over Russia's involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine.
Diplomats in Brussels told RFE/RL that the ambassadors were near an agreement to add about 28 individuals and entities to the sanctions list and would continue their consultations on February 5.
Senior Russian officials were not expected to be named.
EU foreign ministers agreed on January 29 to expand the list and to extend until September an initial EU sanctions list targeting Russians and pro-Russia separatist leaders in Ukraine.
Without the extension, the initial sanctions would have expired in March.
The expanded list is expected to be approved by EU foreign ministers on February 9.
U.S. Arms To Ukraine?
In Washington, a senior official said Vice President Joe Biden would meet in Europe with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko later this week to discuss expanded sanctions against Russia and possible U.S. security assistance for Ukraine.
Poroshenko, who meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Kyiv on February 5, has said he does not have "a slightest doubt that the decision to supply Ukraine with weapons will be made by the United States as well as by other partners of ours.
France and Germany have already said that they do not intend to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons in the near future.
But Ashton Carter, President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next U.S. defense secretary, told Congress on February 4 that he was leaning in favor of providing lethal military aid to Ukraine.
Carter told his Senate confirmation hearing that he would "very much incline" in the direction of supplying weaponry to Ukraine.
His comments follow reports that U.S. officials are considering the possibility of sending javelin antitank missiles, armored vehicles, small arms, and ammunition to Ukrainian government forces.
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, local officials said at least five people were killed by shelling that damaged a hospital on February 4.
Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk blamed Ukrainian government forces for the attack.
Fighting In Debaltseve
Near Debaltseve, fighting continued despite international calls for a truce and concerns about the fate of civilians in the road and rail junction town between Donetsk and Luhansk.
The Ukrainian military said rebels used "all kinds of weapons" in nine attacks on its positions near Debaltseve overnight, but failed to dislodge government forces.
Separately, military spokesman Vyacheslav Seleznyov said two Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the previous 24 hours across eastern Ukraine, where the conflict has killed more than 5,350 people since April.
A separatist spokesman said four people were killed in and around the city of Donetsk overnight.
The calls for a truce in the Debaltseve area came after Amnesty International released a statement on February 3 calling the situation there "catastrophic," with thousands of residents "desperately sheltering from heavy shelling" and in need of running water, food, electricity, and basic medical supplies.
The OSCE's current chairman, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, said the truce should be used first to evacuate noncombatants from the area but should also lead to "the immediate resumption of consultations with the aim of securing a sustainable cease-fire."
A 12-point agreement on a cease-fire and steps toward peace was signed in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, on September 5, but it has been violated daily and diplomatic efforts have failed to stop an escalation in fighting that the UN says killed more than 242 civilians in January.
On February 3, UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Raad al-Hussein urged all sides to stop fighting, saying "further escalation will prove catastrophic for the 5.2 million people living in the midst of conflict in eastern Ukraine."
He said the estimate of at least 5,358 people killed and 12,235 wounded in the conflict since mid-April was "conservative" and that UN agencies believe the actual number of deaths was "considerably higher."
The conflict, which erupted after Russia illegally seized control of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March, has driven ties between Moscow and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.
Kyiv and the West accuse Moscow of arming, training, and aiding the rebels by sending troops to fight alongside them.
Fighting subsided somewhat in December but reignited around January 10, and peace talks in Minsk on January 31 quickly fell apart amid what the United States has called a "Russian-backed offensive" by the rebels.
Speaking on February 3, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, "The vast majority of the international community believes the preponderance of aggressive actions are coming from the Russian side and the side of the Russian-backed separatists."