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EU Ministers Meeting To Discuss Russia Sanctions As Ukraine Fighting Rages

Ukrainian servicemen man a checkpoint near Lysychansk in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian servicemen man a checkpoint near Lysychansk in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine.

Fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine has claimed more lives as EU foreign ministers prepared to discuss the possible extension and expansion of sanctions against Moscow for its role in the conflict.

Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said January 29 that five Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and 29 wounded in the previous 24 hours.

Lysenko also said that separatists targeted Ukrainian Army positions with shells or rockets in more than 100 separate attacks.

He said there has been an increase in the number of Russian military instructors aiding the rebels.

The new casualties followed claims by the rebels that they have nearly encircled government forces in the strategic town of Debaltseve, which straddles a key road junction between the rebel-held provincial capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Kyiv and the West say the rebels have stepped up attacks in violation of a cease-fire deal signed in September in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, decreasing the chances of ending a conflict that has killed more than 5,100 people since April.

Rebels have said that the terms of the Minsk agreement are no longer in force and vowed to seize more ground in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Russia denies sending troops to eastern Ukraine to aid the rebels, saying the only Russians fighting there are “volunteers.”

But the head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) said on January 28 that Russia has deployed seven "mobile military crematoriums" in the eastern Donetsk region to burn the bodies of Russian soldiers killed in combat there.

Valentyn Nalyvaychenko said the crematoriums are mounted on Kamaz trucks and said each is burning eight to 10 bodies per day.

He said Ukraine had "documented this information" but did not explain how.

WATCH: Ukrainian soldiers in the Luhansk region say they have come under heavy fire from pro-Russian separatists, who are reported to be gaining ground. In the town of Stanytsya Luhanska, thousands of residents have fled their homes as shells and tank fire hit residential areas. (By Levko Stek of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service)

Homes Burn As Separatists Make Gains Near Luhansk
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Relatives of some Russian soldiers say servicemen have been pressured to fight in Ukraine, and there are reports of bodies of Russian soldiers being repatriated for burial.

The escalation of fighting in recent weeks followed unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to ensure the cease-fire is implemented and push for a resultion of the conflict.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said on January 29 that he fears the confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine could escalate into war.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka expressed concern the conflict in eastern Ukraine could spill over into Belarus and Russia -- a country he said was "involved in the crisis to an extreme degree."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said earlier this month that there were 9,000 Russian troops in Ukraine.

Ukrainian men who were called up for military service according to a mobilization plan walk with their bags in Kyiv before boarding a bus.
Ukrainian men who were called up for military service according to a mobilization plan walk with their bags in Kyiv before boarding a bus.

Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels on January 29 to discuss whether to extend current sanctions against Russia in response to the current escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and whether to approve new ones.

Speaking on January 29 to MEPs from a delegation to the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee in Brussels, Russia's EU Ambassador Vladimir Chizov said sanctions are "a road to nowhere."

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, speaking in Brussels after meeting NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, said "ministers are ready to issue a forceful statement plus consider further robust measures."

However, diplomats told RFE/RL that Greek objections had blocked consensus at a preparatory meeting on January 28, which discussed a draft statement calling for the current sanctions imposed following Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula to be extended until December and for more individuals and entities to be affected.

Ambassadors gathered again on January 29 before the foreign ministers' meeting to try to hammer out agreement, and a new draft proposed that sanctions be extended only until September.

The difficulties arose after the office of new Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras this week complained that it was not consulted about EU leaders' January 27 statement calling for further "restrictive measures" against Russia.

The new leftist Syriza-led government is more sympathetic to Moscow.

The United States also says more pressure should be applied on Moscow to abide by the Minsk agreement.

In a telephone conversation with Poroshenko on January 28, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said Russia must face increasing penalties unless it changes course on Ukraine.

Biden says Russia is blatantly disregarding its obligations under the Minsk agreement.

The White House said Biden and Poroshenko also discussed how the separatists' actions are taking a heavy toll on Ukraine's civilian population.

Moscow blames the recent flare-up in fighting on Kyiv, but the White House described rebel advances as a "Russian-backed offensive."

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak, RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, RFE/RL's Robert Coalson in Prague, and Reuters
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