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Ukraine, Rebel Talks End Amid Deadly Fighting

  • Al Pessin

Ukrainian soldiers stand outside the city council building in the town of Debaltseve, Ukraine, Jan. 31, 2015.

Ukrainian soldiers stand outside the city council building in the town of Debaltseve, Ukraine, Jan. 31, 2015.

Peace talks between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists ended Saturday without a deal as fighting raged in the country's east, killing both soldiers and civilians.

The talks in Minsk broke up after several hours. Ukraine's envoy, former President Leonid Kuchma, blamed separatist negotiators who he said refused to discuss steps for a cease-fire and withdrawal of heavy weapons.

A cease-fire the sides agreed to in September was repeatedly violated and collapsed completely last week when rebels announced the start of a new offensive designed to expand their territory.

In a three-way phone call on the situation, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had reportedly expressed hope that the Minsk negotiations would produce a cease-fire.

Shelling in the strategic transport hub of Debaltseve killed 12 civilians Saturday, according to the police chief of the rebel-held Donetsk region, Vyacheslav Abroskin. Debaltseve is 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, announced the deaths of 15 soldiers across the east in the past day of fighting with Russia-backed separatists.

The Ukraine conflict has killed more than 5,100 people since it erupted last April following Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

In a VOA interview Saturday, the governor of the Donetsk region, Ukrainian Army General Alexander Kihtenko, said that at least 280,000 people had been displaced in his area since the rebels launched their offensive in early January, and that the number grows larger every day.

The governor said the fighting had affected people very badly because they were under nearly constant threat of shelling, the destruction of their homes and the loss of relatives and friends. He said people were longing for peace and a return to normal life.

Many people in the combat zone do not have electricity, water, heating or gas supplies, the governor added. Temperatures have been hovering near freezing.

The rebels have expanded the area they control during the last several weeks of fighting, but the governor said he was not concerned that they would take the relatively large city of Kramatorsk, as they did in early in the uprising, before the Ukrainian military launched its counteroffensive.

Kihtenko said there was a large, motivated defense force in Kramatorsk that the rebels could not overcome.

Although the governor is no longer a military commander, he said that, as a military man, he saw the need for more foreign military aid, including modern weaponry like anti-tank guns and communication and reconnaissance gear.

Western countries support Ukraine and have provided some military equipment, but most have been reluctant to supply lethal military aid for fear of escalating the conflict.

Ukrainian officials say they could easily defeat the rebels if not for Russia’s active support, which they say includes thousands of troops, weapons and training. As long as Russia remains involved in the conflict, Ukrainian leaders concede, the reinforced rebels can match or exceed any move by their forces, or by Ukraine's Western supporters.

Western officials hope economic sanctions, strengthened again last week, will persuade Russia's Putin to change his Ukraine policy, but so far they have not.

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