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8 Civilians Die in Fierce Fighting in E. Ukraine


An elderly Ukrainian man is helped by an Ukrainian army soldier and a citizen during a evacuation of civilians in Debaltseve, in the Donetsk region, Feb. 3, 2015.

Fresh fighting between Ukraine's military and pro-Russian separatists has killed at least eight civilians, officials in eastern Ukraine said Tuesday.

At least 22 people were wounded in the fierce outbreak of shelling over the previous 24 hours, Kyiv and rebel officials said.

"It was flying all over the place, shrapnel, everything. From the top, everything burnt down. All the clothes that you see us wearing, this is all we have left now," said Donetsk resident Valentina Voloshina.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Ukraine's military said five of its soliders were killed and 27 wounded in the violence.

Fighting has raged in and around separatist-controlled areas in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions, especially around the Kyiv-controlled town of Debaltseve, since the rebels launched a new offensive late last month and peace talks in Belarus between the two sides collapsed Saturday.

Local morgues in separatist-held areas are overflowing with bodies of rebel fighters, of whom hundreds have been killed and hundreds more wounded in recent weeks, Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said at a briefing Tuesday.

New statistics

The United Nations reported Tuesday 224 civilians were killed and 545 wounded in eastern Ukraine in the three weeks leading up to February 1. It said the civilian death toll has been high in areas controlled by the government and those controlled by the separatists.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein warned any further escalation in the fighting "will prove catastrophic for the 5.2 million people living in the midst of conflict in eastern Ukraine."

Zeid called the separatists' rejection of the cease-fire agreement reached last September and their vow to step up their military offensive "extremely dangerous and deeply worrying."

U.N. estimates place the death toll in eastern Ukraine at more than 5,358, with another 12,235 wounded since mid-April last year.

There are fears the violence could soon escalate.

On Monday, a pro-Russian separatist leader announced a "general mobilization" with the aim of bolstering separatist armed forces to as many as 100,000 fighters.

Sealing borders

Russian citizens will soon be able to enter Ukrainian territory with international passports only. A decree by Ukraine’s government issued Tuesday said the move reflects the need for better border control and the adoption of “European border crossing regulations.”

Ukrainian soldiers guard a check point near the town of Debaltseve, Donetsk region, Feb. 3, 2015.
Ukrainian soldiers guard a check point near the town of Debaltseve, Donetsk region, Feb. 3, 2015.

Widely seen as an effort to stem the influx of potential rebel fighters and saboteurs from Russia, the decree is to go into effect March 1.

"Such a move will significantly strengthen border control and help protect the national security of Ukraine," said a government statement quoting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

Currently, Russian citizens can enter Ukraine with domestically issued IDs or birth certificates.

US considers lethal aid

Meanwhile, the United States said it has not made a decision on whether to provide Ukraine with lethal military assistance in its fight against the separatists.

Spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at the State Department's daily briefing Monday that no options have been taken "on or off the table" and there is an "ongoing discussion," but that no decisions have been made.

Pro-Russian rebels drive a Strela-10 self-propelled anti-aircraft system in Donetsk Feb. 3, 2015.
Pro-Russian rebels drive a Strela-10 self-propelled anti-aircraft system in Donetsk Feb. 3, 2015.

The New York Times reported Sunday that President Barack Obama's administration is taking a "fresh look" at the question of supplying lethal aid to Ukraine's military.

Kerry will travel to Kyiv on Thursday to meet with President Petro Poroshenko and other top Ukrainian officials.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday repeated her comments from the previous day that Germany will not deliver "lethal weapons" to Ukraine and will focus instead on a "diplomatic solution."

Merkel will travel to Washington to meet Monday with Obama.