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Ukraine Says Russian-Backed Rebels Still Attacking


Pro-Russian fighters ride in the back of a truck towing a mobile artillery cannon as they leave the front line and head toward Donetsk on February 23.
Pro-Russian fighters ride in the back of a truck towing a mobile artillery cannon as they leave the front line and head toward Donetsk on February 23.

A Ukrainian military official says Russian-backed rebels have continued attacking government positions in violation of a cease-fire agreement.

In televised comments on February 24, military spokesman Anatoly Stelmakh said separatist forces targeted villages near the strategic town of Debaltseve seven times late on February 23.

Stelmakh said separatists also fired artillery and mortar rounds in three areas near the rebel-held provincial capital of Donetsk and fought government forces for 30 minutes early on February 24 near the coastal city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea.

A February 12 deal brokered by the leaders of France and Germany required both sides to cease fire and pull heavy weapons back from a separation line, but Ukraine said on February 23 that it could not begin the pullback because rebels were still launching attacks.

Stelmakh repeated that on February 24, saying government forces would begin withdrawing weapons once there is "a complete cease-fire for at
least 24 hours."

A rebel military spokesman, Eduard Basurin, denied that the separatists had launched attacks, saying there had been "provocations" from the government side but no serious clashes.

Basurin said the separatists had begun their pullback last week and began withdrawing heavy weapons from four stretches of the separation line -- including the section near Debaltseve -- at 9 a.m. local time on February 24.

Relatives and friends in Lviv meet Ukrainian soldiers who have just returned from eastern Ukraine.
Relatives and friends in Lviv meet Ukrainian soldiers who have just returned from eastern Ukraine.

But the Ukrainian military said rebel assertions that they were pulling back guns were "mere empty words."

"On the contrary, the terrorist groups, making use of the cease-fire period, are reinforcing their units and building up ammunition," the military said in a statement.

It said one government soldier had been killed and seven wounded in the past 24 hours.

Kyiv and Western governments say the rebels have repeatedly violated the terms of the agreement reached on February 12 in Minsk in talks between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Francois Hollande.

The foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France are due to meet in Paris on February 24.

Fighting has subsided and there are hopes in the West that the rebels will halt an offensive they began in mid-January after ignoring the cease-fire and seizing Debaltseve, a key road and rail junction between Donetsk and the other separatist-controlled provincial capital, Luhansk, last week.

In what may have been an effort to reassure the West, Putin said on February 23 that a war between Russia and Ukraine was unlikely and that he hoped the cease-fire would take hold.

But rebel attacks near Mariupol have raised concerns that the separatists may seek to take the largest government-held city in Donetsk province and push further westward toward Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.

Russia used troops and a referendum to seize control of Crimea after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv following months of huge protests over his decision to scrap plans for a landmark agreement with the European Union and tighten ties with Moscow instead.

Any major rebel offensive would threaten to shatter hopes for peace in a conflict that has killed more than 5,400 people since April and driven tensions between Moscow and the West to their highest point since the Cold War.

Putin repeated his denials of involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which Moscow has called a civil war despite what Kyiv and NATO say is incontrovertible evidence that Russia has armed the rebels and sent troops to fight alongside them.

The February 12 agreement built on a 12-point plan for a cease-fire and steps toward peace that was signed by Ukraine, Russia, and the separatists in Minsk in September.

With reporting by Unian, Interfax, RIA, and Reuters
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