Contested Debaltsevo area remains a stumbling block in E.Ukraine

Clashes continue around Debaltsevo, a city contested by Kiev’s forces and Ukrainian anti-government troops. Fighting goes on there even as ceasefire is mostly observed in other parts of the conflict zone.

The rebels insist that Debaltsevo has been encircled and that their opponents should lay down their arms and leave it immediately. Kiev claims that the city is its advance stronghold and must remain under its control under the Minsk agreement.

Reuters / Baz Ratner

The issue was one of the major bones of contention during last week’s marathon talks in the Belarusian capital and was not resolved there, with the parties agreeing to hold additional fact-finding probes to find a common ground.

The head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, said the clashes in Debaltsevo are not a violation of the ceasefire agreed on in Minsk on February 12.

“It’s all in the framework of the Minsk agreements. We’re sticking to our positions. Debaltsevo is in our rear area. According to the Minsk agreements, all illegal armed groups on the territory of Donbass must be disbanded or disarmed. So, the disarmament of illegal armed groups is what we’re doing,” Zakharchenko told LifeNews website.

Meanwhile, Kiev said that it views the fighting near Debaltsevo – where thousands of Ukrainian troops remain trapped – as a violation of the Minsk agreements.

“The militants want to surround Debaltsevo and thus destroy all possibilities for further implementation of the Minsk agreements," Valery Chaly, deputy head of the Ukrainian president’s administration said during a briefing on Tuesday.

The clashes near Debaltsevo are “continuing without a break day and night,” Eduard Basurin, a Donetsk militia representative, said, adding that Ukrainian troops are trying break out of the encirclement, while the rebels are preventing all those attempts.

“According to our data, over 5,000 Ukrainian troops are trapped in the Debaltsevo ‘cauldron.’ The situation in this area remains the most difficult along the contact line,” Basurin said.

READ MORE: Kiev, rebels accuse each other of breaching ceasefire, heavy artillery withdrawal in doubt

With the Debaltsevo stumbling block firmly in place of the ceasefire, both Kiev and its opponents appear to be reluctant to start the planned withdrawal of heavy weapons. On Tuesday, Ukrainian military spokesman Andrey Lysenko accused the rebels of lying about their withdrawal schedule.

“The statements [from rebel commanders] about the pullout of heavy weapons remain just statements. We didn’t notice any actions,” he said, adding that Kiev would only order a pullout after the clashes stop.

Lysenko’s opposite number among the rebels, Eduard Basurin, said on Tuesday they would meet Kiev halfway on the issue, even though on Monday he said their heavy weapons would be withdrawn only simultaneously with those of the Kiev forces.

“We intend to pull back artillery in the areas where the ceasefire is holding,” Basurin told journalists.

Both Kiev and the militia have serious motives to cling to the contested Debaltsevo. For Kiev it would be a major military asset with proximity to Donetsk, a rebel stronghold. The Ukrainian media also depict Debaltsevo as a place of a heroic last stand, so losing it would be perceived as a serious defeat for the government.

READ MORE:RT crew comes under shelling at Donetsk Airport

The anti-government forces claim to be holding Debaltsevo in a chokehold, with supply lines cut. They argue that for all practical goals Kiev cannot maintain control over the city for long and thus it should be surrendered. The rebels also suspect Kiev of intending to break the ceasefire eventually and don’t want to leave a land within rocket artillery range from Donetsk in their opponent’s hands.

"We do not have the right [to stop fighting for Debaltsevo]. It's even a moral thing. It's internal territory," Denis Pushilin, a spokesman for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, told Reuters.

The disparity of views is mirrored in the conflicting reports about the situation on the ground the two sides declare. The anti-government forces announced on Tuesday that they had “a bigger part of Debaltsevo” under their control and that Ukrainian troops were taking their offer to surrender.

Kiev rejected the report as utterly false. “The enemy is suffering heavy casualties and loss of arms. The artillery support continues,” Lysenko assured.

READ MORE: The Minsk ceasefire deal, point by point

Meanwhile, in Kiev around 50 mothers and wives of Ukrainian troops, who are trapped near Debaltsevo, blocked an avenue near the country’s Defense Ministry. The women only agreed to leave after talks with the defense minister, Stepan Poltorak, but said they’ll return if the situation in Debaltsevo doesn’t change.

According to the report, which the head of the monitors presented to the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) Permanent Council, the ceasefire is holding in eastern Ukraine, except the Debaltsevo area, Andrey Kelin, Russia’s envoy to the organization, told RIA Novosti.

The OSCE monitoring mission has received access to several areas, which previously were out of its reach, including Gorlovka and Krasnodonsk, Kelin added, but no guarantees have so far been given for the observers’ safe passage to Debaltsevo.

The deputy chief monitor of the OSCE mission to Ukraine, Alexander Hug, is at the site and is negotiating passage to the town for his team, Kelin said.

“We are waiting for all the parties to confirm full ceasefire,”OSCE’s Ukraine mission spokesman Michael Bociurkiw told TASS.“We have 20 OSCE monitor groups in the Donbass conflict zone, but they are currently in the safe zone in Donetsk and Lugansk Regions.”

The new Minsk agreement endorsed last week by the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine provides for a ceasefire and pullout of heavy weapons as the first steps towards a political settlement of the Ukrainian civil war. The deal gives a hope of peace for the imperiled country, although many skeptics say it will collapse the same way the previous peace deal did in January.

The measures necessary to bring the so-called Minsk agreement into force were discussed during a phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, the Kremlin reported Tuesday.

“The issues of ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons by the sides of the conflict and the situation around the city of Debaltsevo were discussed,” Putin’s office said. The leaders also agreed on specific steps to be taken to enable OSCE monitoring mission in the area.

READ MORE: ‘Observed in general’: France, Germany, Kiev & rebels agree truce holding

The talks were confirmed by a German governmental spokesman, who said the pullout of the weapons should start on Tuesday as planned. Berlin called on Moscow to use its leverage on the Ukrainian rebel forces to implement the ceasefire.

Neither side commented on how exactly they plan to make clashes stop around Debaltsevo.

As the hostilities in Eastern Ukraine continue, the death toll from the civil war rises accordingly. The latest UN count put the number of fatalities at least 5,665 since April, when the armed conflict started. The number is likely to rise at the casualty figures from Debaltsevo arrive.