Blame game after ceasefire broken
The Ukrainian government and separatist rebels blamed each other for violating a fragile ceasefire dozens of times, sparking fears of wider hostilities in war-torn eastern Ukraine.
Amid the tensions, Moscow sternly warned cash-strapped Ukraine that its pay for Russian gas would only last for a few more days, raising the spectre of another gas war with potential repercussions for Europe.
A Ukrainian military spokesman said the Russia-backed rebels fired on Ukrainian positions nearly 50 times in the past 24 hours and that Russia sent more tanks into Ukraine despite a ceasefire that was supposed to begin on Sunday.
The rebels, meanwhile, claimed that Ukrainian forces had violated the ceasefire more than 20 times today.
The government claims, which followed the rebel seizure of the key rail hub of Debaltseve, raised the question of whether weeks of high-level diplomacy aimed at producing a ceasefire and a peace plan had simply allowed the rebels to redouble efforts to grab more territory.
The village of Kurakhovo, west of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, was hit by Grad rockets and the village of Berdyansk, near the key port city of Mariupol, was hit overnight by artillery and mortar fire, Lt. Col Anatoliy Stelmakh, a Ukrainian military spokesman, told reporters.
Russia is still moving military equipment into Ukraine, including 10 tanks brought into Novoazovsk, near Mariupol, he added.
French President Francois Hollande, who brokered the peace deal last week together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said today he did not have confirmation about Russian tanks entering Ukraine.
"That doesn't mean this doesn't exist," he said, underscoring the need for the ceasefire to take hold and halt the risk of escalation.
Vladislav Seleznyev, a spokesman for Ukraine's military general staff, said two soldiers had been killed in the past day and 110 were being held prisoner by the rebels.
Both sides were supposed to begin drawing back heavy weapons from the front lines on Tuesday, but international monitors say they have seen no signs of that.
Concerns are rising that the rebels are still gunning to take Mariupol, a government-held city on the Sea of Azov that could allow them to create a land bridge between Russia and Crimea, which Russia annexed last March. Crimea has no physical link to Russian territory now.
Yesterday, the rebels celebrated their victory over Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve, a key transport hub linking the two largest rebel strongholds in eastern Ukraine. Rebel fighters roamed the town's debris-littered streets, laughing, hugging and posing for photos, although the death of one fighter when his vehicle hit a land mine was a sharp reminder of the dangers that still lurked.
Ukrainian soldiers who made it out of Debaltseve alive described weeks of harrowing rebel shelling, followed by a chaotic, hasty retreat. Ukrainian officials said 13 soldiers had been killed and 157 wounded in the fighting, but the shell-shocked soldiers themselves spoke of many more casualties.
"Starting at night, they would fire at us just to stop us from sleeping. They did this all night," a Ukrainian soldier named Andrei said after fleeing Debaltseve. "Then in the morning, they would attack, wave after wave."
While fighting continued in the east, Ukraine raised the pressure on the separatists yesterday by cutting off shipments of natural gas to the area. The national gas company Naftogaz linked the cutoff to damaged gas transit infrastructure and said supplies were resumed later in the day.
But Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said today that Ukraine has still failed to restore gas shipments to the east, "putting people's lives and health under threat".