A month of relative quiet in eastern Ukraine was shattered in early January by full-blown fighting as the separatists attempted to claw back additional territory from government hands. Rebel leaders accused Ukraine of mobilizing its forces in advance of an imminent offensive.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said on Saturday that 1,000 residents have been evacuated in the past days from Debaltseve. But the number of crammed civilian vehicles seen speeding out of the town’s rutted, icy roads over the past few days suggests official figures may be on the conservative side.
Vyacheslav Abroskin, head of police for the Donetsk region, said 12 people had been killed by shelling in Debaltseve, which hosts a strategic railway hub. He did not specify over what period the deaths had taken place.
Taking control of Debaltseve would allow the rebels to control important road and rail connections, and may even prove a turning point in the war. Many Ukrainian government supporters, meanwhile, fear a massacre if rebels take control of the city.
“Fighting continues across all sections of the frontline,” Kiev military spokesman Volodymyr Polyovy said in a briefing, noting that some 13 soldiers had been killed in the past 24 hours. Other Ukrainian authorities said at least 13 civilians had also been killed in attacks.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which took part in the talks in Minsk, Belarus, along with envoys from Ukraine and Russia, said rebel delegates had not been ready to discuss key points of a peace plan.