KYIV, UKRAINE —
Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia rebels have begun evacuating civilians from Debaltseve, a strategic city where fighting recently intensified. The cease-fire comes as French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are due to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to try to end the conflict.
Debaltseve has been a center of fighting in Ukraine's east since pro-Russia rebels launched an assault on the government-controlled city in January. The railway hub links the two main cities they control - Donetsk and Luhansk.
On Friday, the two sides agreed to a humanitarian corridor to bus out locals caught in the crossfire, who have been living without heat or water.
Despite the limited truce, Ukraine's military spokesman, Colonel Andriy Lysenko, says fighting continues and, in some areas, has gotten worse.
"In Debaltseve, the shelling decreased a bit in the last 24 hours. But, at the same time in Luhansk and Mariupol the situation is intensifying. The rebels are attacking cities," said Lysenko.
Lysenko went on to say Ukrainian forces are repelling the attacks and claimed big losses for the rebels. He said 60 rebel fighters were killed and four tanks destroyed, while on the Ukrainian side two were killed and 26 wounded. The figures cannot be independently confirmed.
Lysenko said they had evacuated hundreds of people from Debaltseve and other cities.
But Oleg Sirko, a member of the coordination council of the association of peoples’ volunteers, criticized official efforts.
"We have prepared a whole program of actions for evacuating Debaltseve but there is no coordination with the government departments," said Sirko.
Oleksandr Horbatko, leader of the aid organization Donbas-SOS, says the situation is dire.
"Eastern Ukraine, particularly Debaltseve and Maryayanko, is very hot. People do not leave their basements as they are hiding from the shelling. They prepare food over open fires because they do not have electricity or gas and the shops are closed. Most people want to leave but there are problems getting information to people outside of central areas," said Horbatko.
The evacuation of Debaltseve comes as the leaders of France and Germany met at the Kremlin Friday night to deliver a new peace plan to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Thursday with Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv to discuss the plan.
The European Union, along most other Western nations, accuses Russia of supplying weapons and soldiers to the rebels, a charge the Kremlin denies.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also held talks with the Ukrainian leaders in Kyiv. He acknowledged Washington is considering supplying weapons to Ukraine's military, raising European concerns it could widen the conflict.
In Brussels Friday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden accused Russia of intensifying the fighting in Ukraine with fresh fighters and military equipment.
"This is the moment the U.S. and Europe must stand together. Russia cannot be allowed to redraw the map of Europe, because that's exactly what they are doing," said Biden.
Over 5,300 people have been killed in Ukraine since the pro-Russia rebels seized government offices in the east and declared the regions republics.
Then United Nations refugee agency says nearly one million people are now displaced due to fighting and the number is expected to increase.
The EU is preparing new sanctions against Russia that could be approved as early as next week. Western sanctions against Russia over its support for the rebels and annexation of Crimea have added to its economic woes as the country is headed for a recession.