Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists launched a new round of peace talks Saturday, even as fighting raged in the country's east, killing both soldiers and civilians.
Shelling in the strategic transport hub of Debaltseve killed 12 civilians Saturday, according to the police chief of the rebel-held Donetsk region. Debaltseve is located northeast of the city of Donetsk, connecting it with Luhansk, another major rebel stronghold.
The government still retains primary control of the vital rail and road junction, which has been without water, power and gas for days.
In addition to the civilian deaths, Ukraine's defense minister, Stepan Poltorak, said Saturday that 15 soldiers also died in the past day of fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatists.
As the situation in the east intensified Saturday, representatives for Ukraine, Russia and the rebels were meeting in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, for talks originally scheduled for Friday. A cease-fire the sides agreed to in September was repeatedly violated but collapsed completely last week when rebels announced the start of a new offensive designed to expand their territory.
The Ukraine conflict has killed more than 5,100 people since it erupted last April following Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
On Friday, rebels said they were encircling government garrisons in the city and had also taken the nearby town of Vuhlehirsk. There was no independent confirmation of the claims.
"Today (Friday), January 30, during persistent fighting, the divisions of the army of the Donetsk People's Republic freed and took full control of the city of Vuhlehirsk and its surroundings," said the separatists' deputy defense minister, Eduard Basurin.
At least 12 civilians on both sides of the eastern Ukraine conflict were killed Friday as a new round of peace talks between Kyiv and pro-Russia separatists failed to materialize after a cease-fire ruptured early in the year.
The city administration in rebel-controlled Donetsk reported that five people were killed by shell fire as they were waiting for humanitarian aid outside a cultural center, while another two people died when shelling hit a trolley elsewhere in the city.
City officials blamed the attacks on Ukrainian government forces. The Ukrainian government's National Security and Defense Council blamed the shelling outside the cultural center on the rebels, and also put the death toll at seven.
Ukrainian authorities also reported that another five civilians were killed Friday by rebel shelling in the town of Debaltseve, a strategic rail junction connecting the regional centers of the separatist-held provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. It has been the scene of intense fighting this week.
Ukraine's military on Friday also said five of its servicemen were killed and 23 wounded over the previous 24 hours.
Peace talks fail to materialize
Meanwhile, representatives from Ukraine, Russia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and pro-Russian separatists gathered in Minsk, Belarus, on Saturday in a fresh attempt to reopen peace talks on the Ukraine crisis.
Peace talks that were set to take place Friday in Minsk failed to materialize. Two separatist delegates who had come to the Belarussian capital announced that the talks were off and that they were flying back to Moscow.
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko had called for the new round of talks in response to the recent upsurge in fighting in eastern Ukraine. Last week, the rebels announced they were launching a new offensive and no longer recognized the cease-fire agreement signed last September.
That cease-fire has been violated repeatedly, with each side blaming the other for breaches.
Russia complains of EU bias
On Friday, Russia’s foreign ministry accused the European Union of bias, a day after EU foreign ministers agreed to extend by six months existing sanctions imposed on Russian and Russian-backed separatist officials for their role in the conflict.
During a meeting in Brussels, the ministers also agreed to come up with more names to add to a list of people subject to an asset freeze and travel ban.
"The one-sided reading by Brussels of what is happening in the conflict inside Ukraine deprives it of the right to act as an ‘impartial broker," the Russian ministry said, according to French news agency AFP.
Some information for this report was provided by Reuters, AFP.