Amid a sharp escalation of fighting in eastern Ukraine, European Union foreign ministers agreed Thursday to extend by six months the existing sanctions imposed on Russian and Russia-backed separatist officials for their role in the conflict.
The ministers also agreed during a meeting in Brussels that, within a week, they’d come up with more names to add to the list of those already subject to an asset freeze and travel ban.
The EU move followed a call earlier Thursday by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for urgent talks with the rebels to reach an "immediate cease-fire." He also sought the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front lines, as laid down in the cease-fire agreement the two sides signed last September in Minsk, Belarus.
That pact has been violated repeatedly, with each side blaming the other for breaches.
Poroshenko made the call for fresh talks after meeting in Kyiv with the members of the so-called "trilateral contact group" formed to facilitate a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine conflict. Its members include Heidi Tagliavini of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov and former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.
Belarus' foreign ministry quoted the contact group as saying it plans to hold the talks in Minsk on Friday.
Russia's RIA Novosti news agency quoted Igor Plotnitsky, head of the rebels' self-declared Luhansk People's Republic, as saying it and the neighboring rebel Donetsk People's Republic would send representatives to Friday's meeting in Minsk.
Warning of 'a big catastrophe'
Also Thursday, Moscow's envoy to European security watchdog OSCE urged the United States and Europe to stop supporting the "party of war" in Ukraine and warned a "big catastrophe'' could lie ahead, according to Russia’s Foreign Ministry.
"I would like to appeal to the representatives of countries that have influence on Ukraine’s leadership, most of all to Washington: It's time to stop indulging Ukraine's ‘party of war,’'' said Russia's OSCE envoy, Andrei Kelin, as the group met in Vienna.
"Only a big catastrophe can result from this if developments continue to evolve in [the current] direction,'' Kelin said, according to a text of his speech published on the Foreign Ministry’s website. He did not elaborate.
Moscow has accused Kyiv of waging a war against Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, while Kyiv and the West maintain Moscow created the conflict artificially with the aim of destabilizing Ukraine in retribution for its pro-Western course.
According to Ukraine and its Western allies, Russia is providing weapons and manpower, including regular Russian troops, for rebels battling government forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, a charge Moscow denies.
Frontline tense, more casualties
The diplomatic parrying came as the fighting in eastern Ukraine claimed more lives.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kyiv Thursday that five Ukrainian servicemen had been killed and another 29 injured over the previous 24 hours, and that Russian-backed separatist forces were "intensively" shelling Ukrainian troop positions.
He said the rebels were also redeploying forces toward Debaltseve, a strategic town that links separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and has been the site of heavy fighting this week, and Mariupol, the government-controlled port city where 30 people were killed Saturday in a rocket attack that was apparently launched from rebel-controlled territory.
Lysenko said separatists have shelled Ukrainian army positions in more than 100 separate attacks in the past day, said military spokesman Andriy Lysenko in a televised briefing Thursday.
Ukraine's Unian news agency reported Thursday that rebel shelling in Debaltseve killed three people, including a child.
On the other side, Ukrainian forces have attacked pro-Russian rebels' positions near Donetsk airport and Debaltseve 10 times since Wednesday, separatist-run DAN news agency reported.
Local volunteers assisting residents of Debaltseve point to a worsening humanitarian situation in the town as a result of what they say is near-continuous shelling.
"Everything is bad in Debaltseve, people are living full time in shelters without fresh air," said Natalia Voronkova, who has been helping residents escape the area.
To date, the Ukraine conflict has claimed more than 5,000 lives.
U.S. Army commander criticizes Russia
Also Thursday, the U.S. Army's top commander in Europe said Russia has two goals in Ukraine.
"Number one is moving boundaries and changing borders,” Lieutenant General Ben Hodges said.
The second "is to fracture the [NATO] alliance," he theorized. "Because Ukraine is not a NATO country, the ambiguity of what's actually going on and who's doing it puts a lot of pressure on the members of the alliance about what they should do."
Ukrainians need to be better equipped to counter rebel artillery, Hodges said, acknowledging that the United States will not provide lethal aid.
Hodges also criticized Russia for bullying neighboring NATO countries with laws meant to stifle their economy. He cited a Russian law, passed last year, calling for the extradition of so-called Red Army draft dodgers in Lithuania.
Lithuania has not been tied to the Russian army since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago, but some Lithuanian men now fear they'll be imprisoned if they go to work in nearby Russian cities, Hodges said.
Such measures, along with flooding media with falsehoods about the situation in Ukraine, are pressuring NATO allies, he said. The United States is less capable of countering the pressure because of defense spending cuts, affecting "the density of Russia experts, linguists," he said.
President Barack Obama will release his proposed 2016 federal budget on Monday. The White House said it will include $561 billion in defense spending, a $37 billion increase over the current allocation.
VOA's Carla Babb contributed to this report. Some additional material was provided by Reuters.