Battle persists for Ukraine railway hub, despite peace deal

LUHANSKE, Ukraine (AP) — Intense
artillery exchanges between Ukrainian
government forces and Russian-backed
separatists persisted Monday around a
strategic town in eastern Ukraine —
fighting that threatens to dash a cease-
fire deal brokered by European leaders last
week.
Under a cease-fire agreement negotiated
by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany
and France, the warring sides are to begin
withdrawing heavy weapons from the front
line Tuesday. That plan already looks at
risk, with the rebels saying they are not
satisfied that conditions are in place for
the process to go ahead.
Associated Press reporters in Luhanske, a
government-held town 15 kilometers (9
miles) northwest of the bitterly contested
railway hub of Debaltseve, heard sustained
shelling Monday. Some of the artillery
appeared to be outgoing, suggesting it
was being fired by Ukrainian troops.
Debaltseve, still in government hands,
remains in contention despite the cease-
fire. The rebels insist the town should
revert to their control because they have
encircled it. A loaded Grad rocket launcher
was seen pointing in the direction of
Debaltseve, but it was not fired while AP
journalists were present.
Observers from the Organization from
Security and Cooperation in Europe, who
are supposed to monitor the cease-fire,
said Sunday that separatists denied them
access to Debaltseve.
Despite the cease-fire that went into
effect early Sunday morning, five Ukrainian
troops were killed and 25 were wounded in
the past 24 hours, Ukrainian military
spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Monday.
Separatist military official Eduard Basurin
said in a televised news conference
Monday that the government overnight
lobbed artillery at Horlivka, a town under
rebel control.
Ukraine, however, blamed that attack on
the rebels. The government-appointed
police chief of the Donetsk region,
Vyacheslav Abroskin, said the separatists
shelled the town in order to derail the
truce.
The cease-fire appeared to hold
elsewhere. The city hall of the rebel
capital Donetsk, which came under heavy
artillery fire in the past week, said on
Monday that there was no fighting in the
area.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of
arming and supplying manpower to the
separatists and have imposed a range of
economic sanctions to pressure Moscow
into changing its course. Russia denies all
suggestions it is directly involved in the
war in Ukraine but the sheer amount of
heavy weapons the rebels have belies that
claim.
The cease-fire had raised cautious hopes
for an end to the 10-month-old conflict,
which has already claimed more than
5,300 lives. But Ukraine and rebel officials
have already traded multiple accusations
of attacks since then.
Both the separatists and the Ukrainian
government insist they are committed to
the cease-fire negotiated in marathon
talks last week. But the Russian news
agency Interfax quoted Basurin as saying
Monday that conditions are not yet ready
to pull back heavy weapons on Tuesday.
"We will begin pulling back equipment
from the line of contact if we receive a
certain signal, which is if the Ukrainians
also do the same thing," Basurin was
quoted as saying.
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela
Merkel appealed for the cease-fire to be
respected.
"The situation is fragile," Merkel
conceded. "(But) that was certainly to be
expected with a view to Debaltseve."
German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman
Sawsan Chebli mentioned the possibility of
a meeting between the German, French,
Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers
this week to discuss "further steps" to
implement the cease-fire deal.
President Vladimir Putin's aide Yuri
Ushakov told Russian news agencies that
the cease-fire is "changing the situation
dramatically" and that Moscow looks
forward to the heavy weaponry being
pulled out from the front line.
On Monday, the European Union added 19
more people and nine organizations to its
list of sanctioned Russian entities,
including two Russian deputy defense
ministers, the eastern Ukraine-born
Russian crooner Iosif Kobzon, who sang to
the rebel leaders in Donetsk last yea