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OSCE Urges Restraint In East Ukraine After Deadly Uptick In Fighting

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A Ukrainian soldier holds a position near the town of Zolote in the Luhansk region earlier this month.

Two high-ranking officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) expressed deep concern over the recent upsurge in fighting in eastern Ukraine that killed at least five combatants and wounded at least eight others near a front-line town from which the warring sides withdrew forces in November.

OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Edi Rama and Secretary-General Thomas Greminger said they regretted reports of casualties, while calling for "restraint and full respect" for the latest cease-fire that was brokered in Paris in December, according to a February 18 news release.

Ukrainian officials say one soldier from the government's forces was killed and four were wounded.

Yakov Osadchy, leader of a Russia-backed separatist militia in the Luhansk region, says four separatist fighters were killed and four others wounded.

"This latest incident is not isolated," Rama said. "Every day the cease-fire is violated, despite the undertakings set out in the Minsk agreements, and the explicit commitment to 'a full and comprehensive implementation of the ceasefire' agreed in Paris two months ago.”

Greminger, meanwhile, urged "all sides to exercise maximum restraint," adding that "the positive steps" taken in recent months to de-escalate the conflict "should not be undone."

Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists exchanged accusations over the latest deadly clashes in the country's east on February 18. It was the most intense fighting the six-year war has seen in months and the heaviest since President Volodymyr Zelenskiy took office in May.

'Three-Pronged Attack'

Kyiv said enemy ground forces launched a three-pronged attack on Ukrainian positions following an intense artillery barrage that started around 5 a.m. local time in the Luhansk region near the town of Zolote.

A leading separatist, however, said the fighting started after an advanced Ukrainian military unit tried to enter nongovernment-controlled territory and found itself in a minefield.

General Ruslan Khomchak, military commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, speaks at a briefing in Kyiv on February 18, 2020.
General Ruslan Khomchak, military commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, speaks at a briefing in Kyiv on February 18, 2020.

Fighting died down around 10 a.m. after the Moscow-backed separatists requested a cease-fire to recover their wounded and dead, said General Ruslan Khomchak, chief of the general staff of the Armed Forces.

There was concern that Ukrainian forces lost ground in the five-hour battle.

At a briefing later in the day with the Ukrainian president, Khomchak said three forward observation posts came under heavy attack from shelling, tank rockets, and infantry rounds.

Ukraine was forced to swiftly mobilize a full-blown defensive operation in the affected areas, the general said.

Fighting was fiercest at the observation point code-named "the Bathhouse," from where Ukrainian forces withdrew.

"We naturally gave the order for our people to withdraw from [the Bathhouse] because we had to deliver a strike upon it, including with artillery," Khomchak said.

Neither side controls the abandoned observation post now, he added.

More than 13,000 people have been killed in the war, and another 1.5 million people internally displaced.

The Ukrainian soldier killed was later identified as Maksym Khitalylov, a 22-year-old grenade launcher with the 72nd Mechanized Brigade.

At least 14 Ukrainian service members have been killed since the beginning of the year.

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