14 Feb 2015

Fierce fighting in Ukraine as ceasefire looms

At least seven Ukrainian military personnel die and 23 are wounded as fighting rages ahead of a midnight ceasefire.

A Ukrainian soldier prepares for fighting (Reuters)

A Kiev military spokesman confirmed the casualties over the last 24 hours and said separatists in eastern Ukraine were trying to grab as much territory as possible before the truce begins on Sunday.

Andriy Lysenko said: “Ahead of midnight, rebels are trying to complete tactically important plans to enlarge the territory under their control.”

Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Petro Mekhed accused the rebels of wanting to “raise their flag” over transport hub Debaltseve, scene of the bitterest recent fighting, and strategic port Mariupol ahead of the ceasefire.

The Russian authorities said thousands of refugees, including many families with children, had crossed the border into Russia from eastern Ukraine in an attempt to escape the fighting.

Under the terms of the peace agreement, brokered in the Belarussian capital Minsk by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, the Kiev government and the separatists will pull back their heavy weapons from the front line.

The rebels have advanced past the line agreed in an earlier ceasefire deal in September, and the new accord appears to envisage them pulling their guns back around 45 miles, to take them back behind the original line, while Ukrainian guns would move 15 miles back to create a buffer zone between the two sides.

Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, told Ukrainian troops: “I don’t want anyone to have any illusions or to seem like I’m naive – there is still an awful long way to go to peace.

“Nobody is absolutely certain that the conditions for peace signed in Minsk will be fulfilled.”

Petro Poroshenko addressing troops (Reuters)

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said there could be more economic sanctions against Russia if there are difficulties in maintaining the ceasefire.

Moscow is widely accused of sending troops and weapons to help the pro-Russian rebels in the east – a charge it denies.

But questions have also been raised about western governments supplying the Ukrainian government with military hardware.

One of several armoured personnel carriers seen heading to Debaltseve on Thursday had number plates which appeared to correspond to an export license plate from the German town of Borken.

It could not be confirmed whether the vehicle was from Germany or if the plates were added later.

The Ministry of Defence (Mod) confirmed today that Ukraine has taken delivery of former British military armoured vehicles in a commercial arms deal.

Reports said 20 Saxon armoured personnel carriers had been delivered and a further 55 were to follow, but the MoD did not confirm the numbers.

An MoD spokeswoman said the unarmed vehicles were transferred by a private firm under a 2013 deal that pre-dated the current conflict.

She added: “Her Majesty’s Government policy since the beginning of the crisis has been to supply non-lethal assistance to the Ukrainian armed forces.

“There has been no change to this and we have not provided lethal assistance. These vehicles were provided unarmed under a commercial contract dating 2013 by a private company. They offer protective mobility to personnel, and are defensive in nature. They are not close combat vehicles.”

About 5,000 people have died since the conflict broke out in April last year.