Ferocious fighting raged in Ukraine today, threatening a ceasefire deal as Kiev and the US accused Russia of fuelling a rebel onslaught to grab territory hours before the truce began.
Kiev-loyal regional police chief Vyacheslav Abroskin said constant artillery bombardments were razing the strategic railway hub of Debaltseve, where Ukrainian forces were clinging on.
“The rebels are destroying the town of Debaltseve. There are non-stop artillery bombardments of residential areas and buildings. The town is in flames,” Abroskin wrote on Facebook.
Ukraine’s Azov volunteer battalion also reported fierce clashes just to the east of the vital government-held port city of Mariupol and said that the village of Shyrokyne had been “practically destroyed” by shelling.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned yesterday that surging fighting had plunged a peace plan reached in Minsk after marathon talks with Russian leader Vladimir Putin into “big danger” before it even got off the ground.
“After Minsk the offensive operation of Russia intensified significantly,” Poroshenko said, speaking in English.
The ceasefire, due to take effect from 2200 GMT today, will be the first test of the commitment by Kiev and pro-Russian separatists to the freshly-inked peace plan.
But with Kiev and Washington claiming Russia was spearheading a separatist push to conquer more territory and government forces digging in, there were fears over whether the truce would be observed at all.
Poroshenko was to speak with US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande later today, while the UN Security Council was expected to meet tomorrow for an emergency session, diplomats said.
The United States said the Russian military had deployed large amounts of artillery and multiple rocket launcher systems and was using them to shell Ukrainian positions.
Ukrainian security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said that rebels backed up by regular Russian troops were trying to “achieve important tactical goals to extend their territory” ahead of the ceasefire.
Lysenko said that seven soldiers were killed and 23 wounded in clashes over the past 24 hours, while rebel and government officials said three civilians had died.
Kiev and the West accuse Russia of pouring arms and troops into Ukraine to bolster the rebels. The Kremlin has consistently denied the charges, but the pro-Moscow rebels boast the modern heavy weaponry of a regular army and frequently outgun Ukrainian forces.
Obama has warned he could start arms supplies to Ukraine if the new peace deal collapses.