Ukraine troops fight to repel rebels

Peter Leonard
Associated Press

Debaltseve, Ukraine — Ukrainian troops battled Monday to repel waves of Russian-backed separatists trying to surround a strategic railway hub in eastern Ukraine, while in an ominous sign for peace efforts, the rebels announced plans to boost the size of their armed forces.

Elsewhere, the rebel stronghold of Donetsk came under heavy, sustained shelling once again. City authorities said Monday 15 civilians had been killed over the weekend in the fighting, while Ukraine authorities said five soldiers had been killed and 29 wounded overall in the east in the past day alone.

Since the unrest in eastern Ukraine surged anew in early January, the separatists have made notable strides in clawing territory away from the government in Kiev. Their main offensive is now directed at Debaltseve — a government-held railway junction once populated by 25,000 people that lies between the rebel-held cities of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Almost 2,000 residents have fled in the last few days alone.

Rebel forces have mounted multiple assaults on government positions in Debaltseve but all were repelled, a spokesman for Ukrainian military operations in the east, Andriy Lysenko, said Monday.

“The units that have arrived in support of our troops in Debaltseve are counterattacking and denying the enemy the opportunity to complete the encirclement,” he said.

Separatist fighters burst through Ukrainian lines last week in the village of Vuhlehirsk on the road west of Debaltseve, getting access to a ridge overlooking the highway running north from the town.

On Monday, Associated Press reporters saw Ukrainian tanks shooting from open fields at the tree line on that ridge. Minutes later, the tanks rolled back onto the highway, leaving a heavy trail of mud in their wake, and taking up new field positions a few hundred yards away.

In a coordinated defensive maneuver, Ukrainian forces fired barrages from Grad multiple-rocket launchers toward the same area.

Despite government’s insistence it intends to retain control of Debaltseve, rows of trenches near a bridge 9 miles to the north suggested a backup plan in case the town falls.

Meanwhile, the leader of the separatists in Donetsk, Alexander Zakharchenko, said new mobilization plans aim to swell the ranks of rebels to 100,000 fighters.

It’s not clear how many fighters the rebels have now or how many able-bodied men are still available in rebel areas. Zakharchenko did not say where he aimed to find apparently tens of thousands of troops.

The rebels have acknowledged that some Russian citizens are fighting among their ranks, but reject Ukraine’s charge that they are getting military help from Russia. Western experts say the sheer amount of heavy weapons under rebel control shows extensive help from Moscow.

“While we still have time before the spring, new detachments will be able to receive military training,” Zakharchenko said. “We expect mobilization to yield at least five additional brigades — five motorized brigades, one artillery brigade and a tank brigade.”

In Budapest, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country will not provide weapons to Ukraine and supports negotiations and a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

“It is my firm belief that this conflict cannot be solved militarily,” Merkel said Monday.

She said she prefers economic sanctions by the European Union and negotiations to “solve or at least mitigate the conflict.”

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 5,100 lives and forced 900,000 to flee since April.