The fragile cease-fire in Ukraine appeared to be near collapse Tuesday just 48 hours after it was implemented, as separatist fighters claimed to have taken a key rail hub after clashes with Ukrainian government forces.
Russia-backed rebels said they had pushed the Ukrainian army out of the contested town of Debaltseve, east of Donetsk, the Associated Press reports. A Ukrainian army official claimed five troops had been killed within the past 24 hours.
A leading representative from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) had earlier pledged to travel to the city on Tuesday to assess the situation after members of the group were denied access over the weekend.
The ongoing hostility threatened to nix the second Minsk accords hammered out in the Belarusian capital last week. They were aimed at bringing an end to months of fighting in southeast Ukraine, after an earlier peace deal reached in September unraveled last month.
Western leaders launched fresh appeals for restraint as a deadline to remove heavy weapons from the front approached Tuesday.
“It was always clear that much remains to be done. And I have always said that there are no guarantees that what we are trying to do succeeds,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin. “It will be an extremely difficult path.”
In Washington, the U.S. State Department said it was “gravely concerned by the deteriorating situation in and around Debaltseve,” and used its Twitter account to emphasize that diplomats were closely monitoring reports that a new column of Russian military equipment was headed toward the embattled hub.
“We call on Russia and the separatists it backs to halt all attacks immediately, engage with the OSCE to facilitate the cease-fire, and, as called for in the packet of measures agreed to on Feb. 12, fully implement their Sept. 5 and 19 Minsk commitments,” Jen Psaki, a spokesperson with the State Department, said in a statement.
The E.U. announced Monday the addition of 19 Russian-linked individuals and nine organizations to a sanctions list, in an apparent bid to ratchet up pressure on the Kremlin. The individuals targeted by the latest rounds of sanctions included leading pro-Moscow separatist fighters in Ukraine along with Russian singer and MP Iosif Kobzon.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it was “bewildered” by the E.U.’s decision and accused the body of doing Kiev’s “war bidding.”
“Such decisions … defy common sense and are ruining the emerged opportunity to find a solution to the internal Ukrainian conflict,” said the Foreign Ministry in a statement.