TIME Ukraine

Moscow and NATO Trade Barbs as Fighting Intensifies in Ukraine

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CRISIS-MARIUPOL
Azif Alikberov recovers in a hospital after being wounded as fighting erupted in Mariupol, Ukraine on Jan. 26, 2014. Oleksandr Stashevskiy —AFP/Getty Images

Putin continues to blame a "NATO foreign legion" for the war in Ukraine, while the alliance says Russia is responsible for the resumed fighting

Clashes continued to escalate in Ukraine’s war-torn Donbas region Monday after a weekend of fierce fighting and shelling in the country’s southeast rendered a five-month-old peace accord all but dead.

On Monday, pro-Russian insurgents encircled a government garrison in the town of Debaltseve that lies along a main road and rail route between two vital rebel strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk, according to Reuters.

The Ukrainian government has declared the imposition of emergency rule in the embattled Donetsk and Luhansk regions and placed the entire country on “full readiness,” according to President Petro Poroshenko’s office.

Moscow continued to saddle Poroshenko’s office with responsibility for the conflict this week, and chided his administration for refusing to engineer a political settlement with Kremlin-aligned forces that have effectively seceded from the state.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Kiev of relying on a “foreign legion” to wage war against separatist militias.

“Essentially, this is not an army but is a foreign legion, in this particular case, a NATO foreign legion, which is not pursuing Ukraine’s national interests of course,” Putin told students at St. Petersburg’s Mining University.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg later dismissed Putin’s accusation as “nonsense” following an emergency meeting with the alliance’s ambassadors and Ukrainian diplomats in Brussels — the first such session in six months.

At a brief press conference following the meeting, Stoltenberg lambasted the Kremlin for allegedly providing insurgent forces in southeast Ukraine with advanced heavy artillery, tanks, armored vehicles and manpower in recent weeks.

“We call on Russia to stop its support for the separatists immediately,” he told reporters.

Over the weekend, Human Rights Watch accused Russian-backed forces of launching a “salvo of unguided Grad rockets” that struck the government-held port of Mariupol and resulted in dozens of deaths. The organization described the assault as one of the most lethal attacks on civilians since the pro-Russian uprising first erupted in southeastern Ukraine last April.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs claims that more than 5,000 people have been killed and at least 900,000 displaced since fighting first flared. An additional 600,000 people are believed to have fled the country.

TIME Ukraine

See the Incredible Devastation of the Iconic Donetsk Airport

A potent symbol of the conflict in east Ukraine

New photographs show the extent of destruction to eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk. The site has become a point on contention between Russia-backed separatists and pro-Kiev forces. On Jan. 21, Ukrainian troops said they had lost control of the airport and had sustained casualties in the latest round of fighting. These images show what is left of the once-thriving structure.

TIME Ukraine

At Least 29 Killed as Rebels Launch Offensive in Ukraine

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CRISIS-MARIUPOL
Ukrainian servicemen patrol around a damaged building after shelling in the southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on Jan. 24, 2015. AFP/Getty Images

(KIEV, Ukraine) — Indiscriminate rocket fire slammed into a market, two schools, homes and shops Saturday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, killing at least 29 people, authorities said. Ukraine’s top rebel leader announced that an offensive had begun on the strategically important port.

The attack came a day after the rebels rejected a peace deal and said they were going on a multi-prong offensive against the government in Kiev to vastly increase their territory. The rebel stance is upending European attempts to mediate an end to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, which the U.N. said Friday has killed nearly 5,100 people since April.

Mariupol, which lies on the Azov Sea, is the major city between mainland Russia and the Russia-annexed Crimean Peninsula. Heavy fighting in the region in the fall raised fears that Russian-backed separatist forces would try to take over the government-held city to establish a land link between Russia and Crimea.

The RIA Novosti news agency cited Ukrainian rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko as saying Saturday that an offensive had begun on Mariupol. He spoke as he laid a wreath where at least eight civilians died when a bus stop was shelled in Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city in eastern Ukraine.

Rebel forces have positions within 10 kilometers (six miles) from Mariupol’s eastern outskirts.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said there were three separate strikes from Grad multiple-rocket launchers Saturday on Mariupol and surrounding areas.

“The area that came under attack was massive,” Mariupol mayor Yuriy Khotlubei said. “The shelling was carried out by militants. This is very clearly Russian aggression that has caused terrible losses for the residents of the eastern part of our city.”

Shortly after the attack, local authorities said around 10 people had died, but by the evening, Khotlubei announced the death toll had risen to 29. There was no immediate report of how many people died in each location.

A Ukrainian military checkpoint on a road out of the city toward rebel-held areas was also hit and one serviceman was killed, the Defense Ministry said.

Mariupol city council urged residents not to panic and to ignore rumors that Ukrainian armed forces were planning to withdraw.

“On the contrary, all units are on fully battle-ready. Security measures in the city have been strengthened,” the council said in a statement.

No armed separatist units have been noted moving toward the city, the statement added.

Responding to the attack upon Mariupol, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini called on Russia to use its influence over the separatist leaders to halt their offensive and to desist from providing military and financial support.

Russia insists it does not support the rebels, but Western military officials say the sheer number of heavy weapons under rebel control belies that claim.

Clashes were taking place across the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where separatist insurgencies emerged in April following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Fighting has also been intensifying recently for the government-held town of Debaltseve, 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of Donetsk. Main roads into the town are under separatist control and it’s feared that Ukrainian forces stationed there could soon be fully surrounded.

A peace deal signed in September in the Belarusian capital of Minsk envisaged a cease-fire and a pullout of heavy weapons from a division line in eastern Ukraine. It has been repeatedly violated by both sides, and heavy artillery and rocket barrages have increased the civilian death toll in the last few weeks.

Foreign ministers from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany agreed Wednesday to revive that division line, but fighting has continued unabated.

On Thursday, mortars rained down on Donetsk, hitting a bus and killing several bystanders. Rebel officials said 13 were killed in that attack. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe cited city morgue officials as saying eight bodies were received.

On Jan. 13, a bus parked near an army checkpoint north of Mariupol was hit by a shell, resulting in the death of 13 people. Ukraine blamed the rocket attack on separatists.

The OSCE’s special monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine condemned the growing number of civilian casualties and called Saturday for restraint from all sides.

__

Raf Casert in Brussels and Yuras Karmanau in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

TIME portfolio

The Best Pictures of the Week: Jan. 16 – Jan. 23

From escalating violence in eastern Ukraine and a thousands strong march in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala. to priests photographing Pope Francis in the Philippines and a surprising, glowing seascape in Hong Kong, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

TIME Ukraine

Ukraine Rebels Say 24 Fighters Killed By Rockets at Airport

A Russian backed separatist rebel takes cover in a shelter from shelling in the Kievsky district, 2 miles from the airport, in Donetsk, Jan. 22, 2015.
A Russian backed separatist rebel takes cover in a shelter from shelling in the Kievsky district, 2 miles from the airport, in Donetsk, Jan. 22, 2015. Manu Brabo—AP

The loss of the airport after months of fighting represents a major setback for pro-Kiev forces

DONETSK, Ukraine — Russian-backed separatists in east Ukraine say 24 of their fighters have been killed in a rocket attack on the recently captured airport outside their main stronghold city of Donetsk.

Rebel defense spokesman Eduard Basurin said the terminal was targeted by Ukrainian government forces Friday with Uragan multiple rocket launchers.

The separatist seizure of the virtually obliterated airport this week after months of bitter battles was a major blow for beleaguered Ukrainian offensives in the east.

Diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany met this week to thrash out a tentative dividing line from which the warring sides would pull back their heavy weapons.

Separatists have warned, however, that they intend to continue their advances and take more territory.

TIME Ukraine

9 Civilians Dead in Bus Attack After Ukrainian Troops Withdraw from Donetsk Airport

People look through the front windshield of a damaged trolleybus in Donetsk, Jan. 22, 2015.
People look through the front windshield of a damaged trolleybus in Donetsk, Jan. 22, 2015. Reuters

After months of bitter fighting, Kiev forces have withdrawn from a key airport terminal

At least nine civilians were killed and several more injured on Thursday morning after a trolleybus was apparently hit by mortar fire in a rebel-held part of Donetsk, the BBC reports.

The deaths came after Ukraine’s Defense Ministry announced late Wednesday that its army had withdrawn from the main terminal of the fiercely-contested Donetsk airport. The loss of Donetsk airport is no longer in use but holds strong symbolic value in the conflict and will be seen as a major blow to pro-Kiev forces. At least six soldiers have been killed and 16 wounded in recent fighting.

Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov argued instead that the surrender was a tactical withdrawal: “We continue to control the southern part of the airport…we left the new terminal because it looks like a sieve and there’s simply nowhere to hide there.”

It is unclear whether the bus attack was connected with the fighting at the airport, with both sides offering different accounts of the event. Separatists blamed the attack on a guerrilla unit while Sergie Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said the attack was the result of Ukrainian shelling from beyond city limits and called it a “monstrous crime.”

Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany had issued a joint call for ceasefire on Wednesday to end the conflict, in which more than 4,800 people have died since last April.

[BBC]

TIME

Morning Must Reads: January 22

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The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

U.S. Condemns Ukraine ‘Landgrab’

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has condemned pro-Russian rebels for participating in a “landgrab” in Ukraine after occupying new territory in violation of a September peace accord. Clashes between Ukraine loyalists and rebels have rapidly escalated

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TIME Ukraine

John Kerry Slams Rebels as Fighting in Ukraine Spirals Further Out of Control

US-EU-KERRY-MOGHERINI
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to the press after a working lunch with E.U. High Representative Federica Mogherini at the U.S. Department of State in Washington on Jan. 21, 2015 Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

Clashes between the Ukrainian military and pro-Moscow rebels have rapidly escalated this week

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has condemned pro-Russian rebels battling the Ukrainian military for participating in a “landgrab” after occupying new territory in clear violation of a September peace accord.

After a brief lull in hostilities, fighting between forces loyal to Kiev and pro-Kremlin rebels spiked drastically this week along several fronts. Insurgents appear to be seizing larger swaths of land thanks to heavy weaponry and the alleged presence of Russian regular forces.

“This is a very blatant landgrab, and it is in direct contravention to the Minsk agreements which they signed up to,” Kerry told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.

The Minsk Protocol, which was signed by representatives from rebel militias along with Ukrainian and Russian officials, called for the orderly withdrawal of foreign fighters and heavy weaponry from the battlefields in southeastern Ukraine. However, the plan continues to be consistently ignored, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of combatants amid renewed fighting.

Earlier on Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated claims that Russia continues to supply men and military hardware to insurgent militias battling the Ukrainian military.

“For several months, we have seen the presence of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. We are also seeing a substantial increase in the number of Russian heavy equipment in eastern Ukraine,” said Stoltenberg during a meeting with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg this week. “This does not contribute to a peaceful solution of the conflict.

Following a meeting at the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power lambasted the Kremlin via Twitter for their alleged role in backing the separatists and denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin for overseeing an “occupation plan” rather than backing the peace accords.

During a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Moscow of sending an estimated 9,000 troops across the border into his nation’s conflict-riven Donbas region.

“The country is facing the aggression not only regarding Crimea, but also regarding the significant part of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. About 9,000 Russian [troops] are in the territory of Ukraine,” Poroshenko told the assembled heads of state and economists.

However, Russia continues to deny that it is providing direct support to separatist fighters and balked at Washington’s efforts to contain the country through myriad sanctions.

“Only the people of Ukraine without any foreign interference must determine their future,” Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a press conference in Moscow on Wednesday. “For its part, Russia will continue to assist the creation of favorable conditions to settle Ukraine’s formidable problems in this spirit.”

TIME

Morning Must Reads: January 20

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Civilians came into the cross fire on Monday when pro-Russian fighters and Ukrainian forces battled in the rebel-controlled city center of Donetsk, critically undermining hopes that an already shaky four-month-old truce agreement can be implemented

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TIME Ukraine

Fighting Has Flared Up in Ukraine, Raising Fears of All-Out War Once Again

Ukraine Army Fighting
A new volunteer for the Ukrainian Interior Ministry's Azov battalion embraces his girlfriend before he and other volunteers depart to the frontlines in eastern Ukraine, in central Kiev on Jan. 17, 2015. Gleb Garanich—Reuters

Renewed clashes come days ahead of a U.N. Security Council meeting on the crisis

Civilians came into the cross fire on Monday when pro-Russian fighters and Ukrainian forces battled in the rebel-controlled city center of Donetsk, critically undermining hopes that an already shaky four-month-old truce agreement can be implemented.

Shells struck a hospital, wounding a doctor and five patients. A nearby university was also hit, sparking speculations that the target was the nearby rebel security ministry.

In the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, an explosion wounded 12 civilians around a courthouse where the trial of what Agence France-Presse describes as a “pro-Western militant” was under way. In the nearby city of Debaltseve, three people died and 12 were left wounded during an exchange of heavy artillery fire. Rebels purportedly launched attacks from residential areas, putting many civilians on the front line.

The worsening crisis comes amid allegations that approximately 700 Russian fighters have slipped into Ukraine this week. Ukraine has frequently accused Russia of backing the pro-Russian separatists with increased arms and manpower.

Meanwhile, a fierce battle is taking place for control of Donetsk airport. Ukrainian presidential adviser Yuriy Biryukov said on Facebook that there were “many injured” after rebels blew up part of a terminal building, Bloomberg reports.

The U.N. Security Council will hold a meeting about the Ukrainian crisis on Wednesday. The conflict in Ukraine has killed nearly 5,000 since April 2014.

[AFP]

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