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Ukraine battles persist ahead of cease-fire


Ukraine battles persist ahead of cease-fire

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LUHANSKE, Ukraine (AP) – Fierce fighting raged on Friday in east Ukraine between government troops and Russian-backed separatists as the warring sides attempted to bolster their positions ahead of a weekend cease-fire deadline.

Combat persisted in the first hours after the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France signed a peace deal Thursday in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had cautiously described the agreement as “a glimmer of hope.”

The most intense battles were for control of the railway hub of Debaltseve, which the press service for government military operations in the east said was targeted 25 times Thursday by rebel Grad launchers and artillery fire. The deadline for the warring sides to halt hostilities is set to take effect on Sunday, at one minute after midnight.

Vladislav Seleznyov, spokesman for the Ukrainian army general staff, said Friday that eight soldiers were killed and 34 wounded over the previous day. Regional authorities loyal to Kiev reported four civilian deaths in areas under their control, while rebels said seven people were killed in artillery attacks on the separatist-held cities of Luhansk and Horlivka.

Separatist forces recently have nearly completely encircled a Ukrainian garrison in Debaltseve, where all but a few thousand civilians have fled to areas away from the front.

Only one highway had remained linking the town to government-held territory, but Ukrainian access to that supply route looks to have compromised with the apparent capture of the village of Lohvynove, which lies along the road, just north of Debaltseve. Associated Press reporters on Friday morning saw the smouldering remains of two Ukrainian army trucks near the village of Luhanske, some ten kilometres up the road from Lohvynove.

The Donbass Battalion, a unit with Ukraine’s National Guard engaged in battles around Lohvynove, said in a statement that captured combatants had confirmed Russian troops were actively involved in battles.

Moscow vehemently denies that it provides manpower and weapons to the rebel forces, although the sheer quantity of powerful weapons at the separatists’ disposal has increasingly strained that position.

Elsewhere, by the Azov Sea in the southeast, Ukrainian government troops say they clawed back a handful of villages. Troops there have denied reporters access to the areas at the centre of those operations.

The cease-fire is to be monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s observer mission in Ukraine.

OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier said in Kiev that he hoped hostilities would be halted by the deadline.

“We would really hope to see a decrease already between now and that moment,” he said.

Zannier said that combatants would have to do more to enable the OSCE peace-monitoring mission, which makes ample use of drone cameras, to properly fulfil its mandate.

“Aerial vehicles have been targeted more than once, monitors have been taken hostage, so we need a change of attitude,” he said.

The next step, to begin on Monday, is to form a sizeable buffer zone between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels. Each side is to pull heavy weaponry back from the front line, creating a zone roughly 30-85 miles (50-140 kilometres) wide, depending on the calibre of the weapons. The withdrawals are to be completed in two weeks.

Other thorny political questions, including a degree of autonomy for the disputed eastern regions, are to be settled by the end of the year.

The peace deal envisions an amnesty for people involved in the conflict, but the vague terms of that provision will likely be subjected to further disagreements and negotiation.

Speaking to parliament, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said amnesty would not be granted to anybody suspected of committing crimes against humanity.

“This is an absolute position that was unambiguously underlined during (Thursday’s) negotiations,” Klimkin said.