Ukraine has called for UN-mandated peacekeepers to enforce a shaky cease-fire deal in the country’s east after Ukrainian troops withdrew from the strategic town of Debaltseve following intense fighting.
President Petro Poroshenko’s request was approved by Ukraine's national security and defense council at an emergency meeting late on February 18.
Poroshenko told the council that "the best format would be a police mission from the European Union."
He said such a force would be “the most effective and best guarantee for security."
There have been conflicting statements by Russian-backed separatists on whether they support the call for peacekeepers.
Russia's RIA news agency quoted Denis Pushilin, a rebel leader in Donetsk region, as saying the presence of peacekeepers would "violate" the truce agreed in Minsk last week.
But Eduard Basurin from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic "defense ministry," said: "If they want to deploy [peacekeepers], let them do so. We do not object," according to Interfax.
Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Poroshenko's proposal put into doubt Ukraine's resolve to fulfil the Minsk agreements.
"When someone, instead of doing what he has signed up to, suggests a new scheme and so soon, that raises suspicions that he wants to destroy the Minsk accords," he was quoted as saying by RIA.
Under the Minsk deal, meant to quell a conflict that has killed more than 5,600 people since April 2014, both sides were due to lay down their arms on February 15 and begin withdrawing heavy armor from the frontlines two days later.
The cease-fire has been broadly observed in eastern Ukraine and some heavy weaponry is said to have been withdrawn by both sides.
But the rebels continued their assault on Debaltseve, a railway hub linking the main separatist-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, even after the Minsk agreement was signed.
And Ukrainian military spokesman Anatoliy Stelmakh said rebels heavily shelled government-held positions in Shyrokine, near the coastal town of Mariupol, during the last day.
Poroshenko said nearly 2,500 government troops on February 18 retreated from Debalteve.
He said six soldiers were killed and more than 100 injured in what he described as "a planned and organized withdrawal."
But exhausted troops seen arriving in the neighboring town of Artemivsk on tanks and other vehicles, or on foot, contested that characterization.
One soldier told AFP: "We didn't hear anything about an order to pull out. We only found out about it when our heavy armor started leaving."
Correspondents saw the bodies of at least 13 soldiers at the local morgue after days of ferocious street battles.
Basurin said more than 3,000 Ukrainian servicemen were killed during the "Debaltseve operation" and said more than 300 soldiers were taken prisoner.
Ukrainian officials admitted that some troops had fallen into rebel hands but would not say how many.
Amnesty International has expressed concern about the treatment of the prisoners, citing evidence of brutality by both sides toward captives.
The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France, the four parties to the Minsk accords, held further talks over the phone on February 19.
The French presidency said the leaders denounced the cease-fire breaches and called for "the implementation of the full package of measures agreed in Minsk" including a full cease-fire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, and the release of prisoners.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had insisted the rebels' actions in Debaltseve had not violated the cease-fire because it was encircled by rebel forces at the time of the agreement, something Kyiv rejects.
The rebel advance, which defied the cease-fire brokered in Minsk by Germany and France, has been widely condemned.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said "the refusal of the separatists to respect the cease-fire" threatened the peace agreement.
Stoltenberg also said “Russian forces, artillery, and air defense units as well as command and control elements are still active in Ukraine.”
He urged Russia to end its support for the separatists and withdraw its forces and military equipment from eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of sending in troops and weapons to spearhead the assault on Debaltseve, something Moscow denies.
The White House said Russia has failed to live up to terms of the deal and is “at risk of greater costs” such as further sanctions.
The U.S. State Department said it does not consider the cease-fire "dead," but expressed concern about ongoing violence.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on February 18 urged Moscow to stop attacks by Russian troops and separatist fighters against Ukrainian government troops.
In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert described the military actions of the separatists in Debaltseve as a "major violation" of the latest truce deal and a "heavy strain" on hopes for peace.
French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said his country would do "everything to keep the agreement alive."
The European Union's foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, condemned the separatist offensive against the town as a "clear violation" of the cease-fire.
In London, the British government has released photos of what it describes as Russia’s most advanced antiaircraft artillery being operated in eastern Ukraine -- the truck-mounted SA-22 surface-to-air missile system.
Britain’s Foreign Office said on February 18 that the photographs of the SA-22 -- also known as the Pantsir-S1 -- are further evidence that Russia’s military is directly supporting separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine.
The weaponry is not operated by Ukrainian forces and could not have been seized by separatists from Ukraine’s military.
A timeline on the photos show the weapons in Shakhtarsk on January 24 and February 5 as well as in Dontesk on February 4.
With reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, and Interfax