Ukraine push leaves dozens dead
US deploys powerful weapons in Germany to 'deter aggression'
Russian-backed forces launched a sustained assault to capture a strategic railway hub in eastern Ukraine yesterday, as intense fighting erupted across the region before a ceasefire comes into force at midnight tonight.
At least 25 people were killed, officials said, highlighting the fragility of the agreement negotiated by the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.
The violence, which broke out less than a day after a peace deal was brokered in Minsk, came as the United States announced the deployment of "tank busting" Warthog aircraft to deter Russia from further aggression.
Twelve A-10 Thunderbolts and 300 accompanying personnel will be deployed to Germany by the end of February, said Lt-Gen Tom Jones, the vice-commander of US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa. The A-10, which saw service in Afghanistan and Iraq, is a slow-flying infantry support jet that packs ferocious firepower.
The aircraft will support ground troops deployed on Operation Atlantic Resolve, an American effort to reassure eastern European allies of Washington's commitment to their defence and deter the Kremlin from trying a Ukrainian-style intervention in a Nato country.
Ukraine is not a member of Nato, but some experts have warned that the conflict in the country could escalate into a confrontation between Russia and the West if the peace agreement signed on Thursday fails.
The worst of the violence is centred on Debaltseve, a strategic railway junction where up to 8,000 Ukrainian troops have been surrounded by massed separatist forces.
Russian-backed fighters, who have been advancing on the town from two sides for nearly a month, have launched a last-minute attempt to seal the encirclement and trap the Ukrainian garrison before the ceasefire comes into force.
Fierce fighting raged at the village of Logvino, which controls the main road in and out of Debaltseve, and on the eastern approaches to the Ukrainian-held port of Mariupol, which separatists have previously said they intend to capture.
At least one child was killed by incoming shells in Artemivsk, a large government-held town near Debaltseve that until now was considered relatively secure behind Ukrainian lines.
Petro Mekhed, Ukraine's deputy defence minister, said separatist forces had been ordered to hoist their flags over Debaltseve and Mariupol by tomorrow.
While that claim could not be verified, Life News, a pro-Kremlin and pro-separatist Russian newspaper, reported that rebel forces had entered the outskirts of Debaltseve.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian military officials maintained that the road into the town remained open.
But Semen Semenchenko, the commander of a pro-Kiev militia called the Donbass Battalion, said on Thursday afternoon that the official line "does not correspondent with reality", adding: "Logvino is under the control of the terrorists and Russian forces."
However, Mr Semenchenko denied that the separatists had sealed the "Debaltseve pocket", saying the Ukrainians retained control of country roads and field tracks in and out of the area.
The violence erupted as it was claimed that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, had attempted to delay the truce by a full 10 days to allow the Kremlin-backed forces time to seize the town. Witnesses said the claims were made at a summit in Brussels where Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Francois Hollande, the French president, briefed fellow EU leaders on the peace talks they brokered in Minsk.
In Kramatorsk, where the Ukrainian military operation has its headquarters, craters in city centre pavements and gaping holes in the walls of apartment buildings show the aftermath of a rocket attack that killed 17 and wounded 48 people on Tuesday.
And there is a real sense that the next 24 hours could change everything. At the aerodrome that serves as the Ukrainian headquarters, heavily armed guards were on high alert. "It will be best not to drive anywhere tonight," said Alexei, a local taxi driver. "The radio chatter is extremely nervous -something is going to happen."
The next step after the ceasefire is to form a sizeable buffer zone. (© Daily Telegraph London)