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Ukraine Rebel Leader Vows To Mobilize 100,000 Men

A pro-Russian separatist leader in eastern Ukraine has announced plans to mobilize 100,000 fighters against Ukrainian government forces amid intensified battles following the collapse of peace talks.

Aleksandr Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, said on February 2 that the call-up would begin in 10 days.

"There will be volunteers at first and we shall see what to do next," he said.

Zakharchenko's announcement came a month after Ukraine's parliament in Kyiv approved plans for the mass conscription of some 100,000 soldiers during 2015 -- a move that included raising the maximum age for compulsory military service from 25 to 27.

Fighting has increased in eastern Ukraine in the past weeks and hopes of easing the situation faded after peace talks fell apart on January 31.

Zakharchenko on February 2 rejected allegations from Kyiv's chief negotiator, former President Leonid Kuchma, that rebel leaders were responsible for undermining the peace talks.

Kuchma said separatist negotiators had issued ultimatums and refused to discuss a plan "for a quick cease-fire and a pullback of heavy weapons."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on February 2 called for an urgent restoration of a cease-fire deal signed in September and said there could be no military solution to the conflict, which has killed more than 5,100 people since April and shows no signs of abating.

The rebels have threatened to push their offensive to take over the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in their entirety, seizing the large coastal city of Mariupol and bringing them closer to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Russia seized from Ukraine in March.

Ukraine said on February 2 that five of its soldiers were killed and 29 wounded during the previous 24 hours by fighting in the two provinces, where the rebels hold the regional capitals and large swaths of land abutting Russia.

Military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov said Ukrainian forces had been targeted with artillery or mortar fire more than 100 times.

He said the fighting remained most intense around the government-controlled town of Debaltseve, a road and railway hub located in a pocket nearly surrounded by separatist-held territory.

Hundreds of civilians have been moved out of Debaltseve amid reports that the separatists have reached the outskirts of the town.

Pro-Kyiv authorities in eastern Ukraine said three civilians were killed in the previous 24 hours, while separatists put the number at 11 and blamed government forces.

More than 5,100 people have been killed in the conflict in eastern Ukraine since April, when it erupted after Russia annexed Crimea, setting off the biggest confrontation beween Moscow and the West since the Cold War.

Talks Collapse

The peace talks in Minsk, seen as a chance to reduce the increased hostilities, quickly collapsed on January 31.

The negotiations included representatives from Russia, Ukraine, the separatists, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The separatists accused Kyiv of sabotaging the talks, with representative Denis Pushilin saying the rebels will reject ultimatums.

On February 2, Zakharchenko ruled out the possibility of a next round of peace negotiations until Kyiv appoints an official representative to the talks.

He said Kyiv’s representative at the Minsk talks, former President Leonid Kuchma, was a "private individual."

Kyiv and the OSCE said the rebels refused to discuss crucial points of a peace plan signed by Russia, the separatists, and Ukraine in Minsk in September, and instead called for revisions that would give them control over more territory.

The Foreign Ministry of Serbia, which chairs the OSCE, said, "They were not even prepared to discuss implementation of a cease-fire and withdrawal of heavy weapons."

The revisions the rebels sought echoed a prosposal that Russian President President Vladimir Putin made in mid-January, which Western governments have described as a bid to gain more ground for the separatists and prevent Ukraine from controlling its border with Russia.

Kyiv and NATO accuse Russia of arming, training, and sending troops to Ukraine to help thed rebels, who are deploying sophisticated and heavy weaponry, including dozens of tanks and multiple-rocket launchers.

WATCH: Events were held in Ukraine on February 1 to honor the victims of a rocket attack that killed 30 civilians in the southern port of Mariupol, held by government forces, on January 24. In Kyiv, crosses with the names of the victims were placed outside the Russian embassy. In the evening, in Mariupol itself, candles were lit on the central Theater Square. The United Nations has said rockets, fired from separatist-held territory, deliberately targeted civilians in an attack violating international humanitarian law. (RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service)

Ukrainians Remember Victims Of Mariupol Rocket Attack
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U.S. Arms For Ukraine?

With diplomatic efforts flagging and rebels on the offensive, calls for the United States and other Western governments to step up military support for Ukraine are mounting.

The New York Times reported on February 1 that senior U.S. administration and military officials are reconsidering providing Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons.

The newspaper said a growing number of U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, are "open to new discussions about providing lethal aid."

So far the Obama administration has limited military aid to Ukraine to non-lethal items such as body armor, night-vision goggles, first-aid kits and engineering equipment.

An independent report by eight former senior U.S. officials released on February 2 said the U.S. government "should alter its policy and begin providing lethal assistance to Ukraine’s military."

The report, released by the Brookings Institution think tank on February 2, proposes sending some $3 billion in military assistance to Ukraine in the next three years, including antiarmor missiles, reconnaissance drones, armored Humvee vehicles, and radars that can determine the location of enemy rocket and artillery fire.

Moscow denies involvement in the conflict, despite what Kyiv and NATO say is incontrovertible evidence of direct military support for the rebels.

With reporting by AFP, Interfax, AP, UNIAN, Reuters, and The New York Times
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