Ukraine Talks Convene as Heavy Fighting Continues – Voice of America
Ukrainian government and separatist negotiators convened talks in Belarus on Saturday with mediators from Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The talks, aimed at restoring a cease-fire, came as heavy fighting continued at the crossroads town of Debaltseve, on the border between Donetsk and Luhansk, the two regions the rebels claim.
With rebel forces on three sides of Debaltseve, more civilians were reported to be fleeing to the north on the one government-controlled road. Still, they were within range of rebel artillery.
On Friday, along the entire former cease-fire line, Ukraine lost 15 troops, according to the defense minister, with 30 injured.
Overnight, the rebel-held city of Donetsk took heavy shelling, with one death reported. A Ukrainian official said the shelling could not have come from government forces, because they have been pushed too far back, away from the town.
In a VOA interview Saturday, the governor of the Donetsk region, Ukrainian Army General Alexander Kihtenko, said at least 280,000 people have been displaced in his area since the rebels launched their offensive in early January, and that number grows larger every day.
The governor says the fighting has affected people very badly because they are under nearly constant threat of shelling, the destruction of their homes and the loss of relatives and friends. He says people are longing for peace and a return to normal life.
Many people in the combat zone do not have electricity, water, heating or gas supplies, the governor adds. Temperatures are hovering near freezing.
The rebels have expanded the area they control during the last several weeks of fighting, but the governor is not concerned that they will take the relatively large city of Kramatorsk, as they did in early in the uprising, before the Ukrainian military launched its counteroffensive.
General Kihtenko says there is a large, motivated defense force in Kramatorsk that the rebels cannot overcome.
Although the governor is no longer a military commander, he says that, as a military man, he sees the need for more foreign military aid, including modern weaponry like anti-tank guns and communication and reconnaissance gear.
Western countries support Ukraine, and have provided some military equipment, but most have been reluctant to supply lethal military aid, for fear that would escalate the conflict.
Ukrainian officials say they could easily defeat the rebels if not for Russia’s active support, which they say includes thousands of troops, weapons and training. As long as Russia remains involved in the conflict, Ukrainian leaders concede, the reinforced rebels can match or exceed any move by their forces, or by Ukraine’s Western supporters.
Western officials hope economic sanctions, strengthened again last week, will convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to change his Ukraine policy, but so far they have not.