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.