Fighting intensifies in eastern Ukraine ahead of peace talks

SARTANA, Ukraine — Fighting intensified Tuesday in eastern Ukraine ahead of much-anticipated peace talks, with both sides claiming significant advances. The government accused the Russian-backed rebels of shelling a town far behind the front lines, killing 12 people and wounding 64 others.

The fighting, which the U.N. says has killed more than 5,300 people since April, comes ahead of a crucial summit planned for Wednesday in Minsk involving the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the talks were “one of the last” opportunities for ending the fighting.

Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of fueling the rebellion with troops and weapons. Moscow denies the charge but the sheer number of sophisticated heavy weapons in the rebel hands belies the denial.

Poroshenko told the parliament in Kiev that the separatists launched a rocket strike Tuesday on the town of Kramatorsk, which is more than 50 kilometers (30 miles) away from the nearest front line. Poroshenko said the first round of rocket fire hit the region’s Ukrainian military command headquarters and the second salvo landed in a residential area.

Rebels denied any involvement in the attack and said it was a “provocation” by the Ukrainian authorities. Kramatorsk was the site of major fighting until July, when pro-Russian separatists retreated.

The government-controlled Donetsk administration said five civilians and five servicemen were killed on the spot and two other people later died of wounds at a hospital. It said 29 civilians and 35 servicemen were wounded by the rocket barrage in Kramatorsk. Photos on the local Donetskiye Novosti website showed an artillery shell stuck in the ground next to a residential building and two bodies lying nearby.

Much further south, the volunteer Azov battalion, loyal to the government in Kiev, said on social media Tuesday that it captured several villages northeast of the strategic port of Mariupol, pushing the rebels closer to the border with Russia. Rebel spokesman Eduard Basurin, in a televised news conference, insisted however that the rebels had not retreated.

The Azov said rebels shelled the village of Kominternove, east of Mariupol, causing unspecified civilian casualties. An Associated Press reporter at a government checkpoint between there and Mariupol heard about fighting several miles away and saw two ambulances and four trucks carrying Ukrainian troops from the direction of Kominternove toward Mariupol.

Oleksandr Turchynov, chairman of the Ukrainian Security and Defense Council, visited the battalion Tuesday and said the government offensive aimed to bolster the defenses of Mariupol and “protect civilians from artillery strikes.”

The rebels reported advances, too. Basurin said they have surrounded the railway hub of Debaltseve, the focus of fierce fighting in the past weeks, cutting it off from a major highway. A video posted online by a rebel-sympathizing website showed the separatists moving along the highway while the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers lay on the side of the road.

At least seven Ukrainian troops were killed overnight in the east, military spokesman Anatoliy Matyukhin said, while in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, which faces frequent shelling, two civilians were reported killed and 12 injured.

Amid the escalating hostilities, the insurgents announced a call-up of new volunteer recruits in Donetsk, in line with separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko’s pledge to strengthen his forces to 100,000 men. Rebel official Arkadiy Fedoseyev said he wants to recruit “tank drivers, mechanics, technicians, repairmen.”

One 18-year-old volunteer, who gave only his first name, Nikolai, said he had come from the Russian city of Volgodonsk.

“I have no parents. I’m from an orphanage. I saw on television how other people’s parents are being killed and I decided that this was not good,” he said, adding that he wants to be a sniper.

The mounting death toll comes amid renewed efforts to work out a peaceful solution in a conflict that has displaced at least 1 million people and left the Ukrainian economy in ruins.

Representatives of Ukraine, Russia, rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe met Tuesday to lay the groundwork for Wednesday’s summit in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

“We are going to Minsk with the firm will to succeed, without being certain that we can do so,” French President Francois Hollande, adding that he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were committed to do everything “so that there can be an agreement, a global settlement.”

Hollande added that he wants the deal in part for economic reasons, “so that there can be a strong resumption of trade,” which was hurt by Western sanctions against Moscow over its course in Ukraine and Russian counter-sanctions.

Amid the worst Russia-West crisis since the Cold War times, France had to suspend the transfer of a navy ship it built for Russia. Paris said that its delivery will hinge on progress toward a peaceful resolution in Ukraine.

“Tomorrow’s meeting in Minsk offers one of the last chances to declare an unconditional cease-fire and pull back heavy artillery,” Poroshenko said Tuesday.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke by phone with both Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin on Tuesday to push for compromises on difficult issues.

Steinmeier said officials from the four countries were trying to iron out the remaining differences in talks, which could continue into Wednesday.

“All participants should know that we have a great opportunity again tomorrow to take a first, important step toward defusing the conflict, hopefully toward silencing the weapons,” Steinmeier said. “But I will stress again that nothing is achieved yet.”

He said that he hopes “Kiev and Moscow will be serious and … grasp this opportunity now.

“I hope that none of those involved in the fighting will push things so far that Minsk is called into question by an explosion of violence in the final hours.”

Meanwhile, the Kremlin warned the West against sending weapons to Ukraine or putting pressure on Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the Russian News Service radio station Tuesday that any talk about imposing new sanctions on Russia or arming the Ukraine government would destabilize the situation.

In Washington on Monday, President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel rallied behind efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in Ukraine but offered no clear path for how the West would proceed if the talks in Minsk failed.

Merkel and other European leaders oppose arming Ukraine’s beleaguered military but Obama dangled the prospect that the U.S. could, for the first time, send lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine.

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