France and Germany have pressed again for respect for the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and withdrawal of heavy weaponry, threatening new costs if warring sides there don’t comply with last week’s truce deal.
Speaking Friday to reporters in Paris, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that sanctions could be imposed if the Minsk agreement to stabilize Ukraine are not fully implemented and the cease-fire is not observed.
“With the [German] Chancellor we have never stopped speaking since the Minsk agreements and we are more convinced than ever that these agreements must be applied - all the agreements, nothing but the agreements -- meaning the cease-fire which is still under threat, which has been violated several times, notably at Debaltseve in these last few days - and which must now be fully observed across the line,'' said Hollande.
Pro-Russian separatists question a man in the eastern Ukrainian city of Vuhlehirsk, six kilometers southwest of Debaltseve, Feb. 19, 2015.
Any country that fails to respect the Minsk agreements risks sanctions, added Hollande.
Hollande and Merkel mediated last week in Minsk between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin at talks that produced the latest truce agreement.
The cease-fire went into effect last Saturday at midnight, but was violated almost immediately when rebels assaulted and took over Debaltseve, a key transport hub near Donetsk that had been largely controlled by Ukrainian government troops.
Ukrainian military spokesman Anatoliy Stelmakh said Friday Russia is still moving military equipment into Ukraine, including tanks sent in the direction of Novoazovsk, a rebel-held town near Mariupol, a strategic port city.
The White House said earlier this week that it is "crystal clear" that the separatists in eastern Ukraine and Russia are not living up to the latest cease-fire agreement and also warned of possible costs.
“We believe that it is important for all sides to live up to [the Minsk] agreement. It is also crystal clear that Russia-backed separatists and Russia themselves have not lived up to their commitments that they made in the context of [the Minsk] negotiations,” spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
Earnest added that the separatists and Moscow may incur “greater costs” and “should be mindful of that as they consider their next steps.”
Russia has consistently denied it is supporting the rebels with hardware or manpower.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Human Rights Office expressed grave concern at the fighting in eastern Ukraine, which it says is taking a heavy toll on civilians caught in the line of fire. The agency also accused pro-Russian rebels of preventing European monitors access to Debaltseve, seized by the separatists in the last few days, despite a cease-fire.
The U.N. Human Rights Office reports nearly 5,700 people have been killed and over 14,000 wounded since mid-April of last year.
While these numbers are dramatic, Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville says they represent a very conservative estimate.
"The Human Rights monitoring unit in Ukraine, our team and WHO who jointly gather these statistics believe the actual number may be considerably higher. And, a further increase in those figures is anticipated in the coming days because the reporting of the casualties, especially military casualties - both during the pre-cease-fire period and especially in recent days in Debaltseve have been considerably delayed and we do not think we have anything like the full picture of casualties from Debaltseve," says Coleville.
He says his agency remains deeply worried about the fate of civilians and captured or wounded Ukrainian servicemen in the Debaltseve area who were caught in the fighting.
The U.N. Human Rights Office is issuing a separate appeal on behalf of Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who has been detained in Moscow since last July. It notes that she has been on a hunger strike for 70 days and that her condition is deteriorating. It is calling on Russian authorities to release her on humanitarian grounds.
Lisa Schlein contributed to this report from Geneva.