Ukraine’s nine-month conflict plunged further into deadly violence on Saturday, as Russia-backed rebels pressed their offensive to take the Ukrainian-held city of Debaltseve and officials scrambled to stop the bloodshed with a new round of cease-fire talks.
A shaky peace agreement brokered in September largely stopped the exchange of territory on the battlefield in east Ukraine and dialed down the scale of fighting. But the pact faltered almost immediately and failed to stem the violence in full.
Now the clock has turned back entirely on Ukraine’s battle with Russia-backed separatists, bringing a return of full-scale warfare. Pitched battles for towns, the likes of which east Ukraine hasn’t seen since last summer, have sent locals scrambling in the dead of winter for safety and a way out. At least 60 civilians have been killed amid the renewed violence since last weekend.
As the rebels press their latest offensive, the losses for Kiev are beginning to mount. The Ukrainian military lost 15 servicemen in the past 24 hours, officials said Saturday, marking one of the worst one-day death tolls for the country’s armed forces since the cease-fire was signed. The rebels haven’t provided regular data on their losses.
Representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the two self-declared separatist republics of Luhansk and Donetsk began to meet Saturday in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, looking to hammer out a renewed cease-fire agreement.
But as the talks got under way Saturday, the battlefield exploded with violence in and around Debaltseve, a critical transport hub between the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk that the separatists have been trying to wrest from Ukrainian forces.
As explosion after explosion rocked the Ukrainian-held city, residents tried to board minivans, buses and even strangers’ cars in an attempt to speed away to safety. Ukrainian authorities say they are evacuating residents, but so far resources have been limited, and thousands of people remain at home in Debaltseve and other towns being pounded daily by rockets.
On Saturday, there were signs the area of fighting was expanding. The sound of impacts from multiple rocket launchers rattled windows, shook buildings and set off car alarms in the city of Artemivsk, a Ukrainian-held stronghold 30 miles north that until recently had been relatively quiet for months.