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Ukraine Declares 'State of Emergency' in Donbas but Stops Short of Martial Law

Hundreds of people have been killed in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, in what the UN has called the “worst hostilities” since a ceasefire agreement came into effect in September.
January 26, 2015, 7:20pm
Image via AP/Sergey Vaganov

Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk today announced a "state of emergency" in war-torn Donbas and placed the rest of the country on "high-alert" as clashes flared all along the frontline.

The decree reportedly allows for increased restrictions on movement, introduction of curfews, and curtails freedom to distribute information, but stops short of introducing martial law.

Despite the bitter fighting that has killed more than 5,000 people since April and four waves of conscription, authorities in Kiev have held back from an official admittance that country is at war.

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The introduction of martial law in Ukraine would effectively mean the handing over of all governing functions to the military and dissolution of parliament. Such a measure has not been taken in the country since World War II and this move in the current climate could prove disastrous, given the current loose chain of command in the army, which includes both regular soldiers and over 50 "volunteer battalions."

The declaration of the "state of emergency" on Monday follows a sharp spike in violence across the region over the last week after Russian-backed rebel forces announced a new offensive. In government-held Mariupol around 30 people were killed on Saturday after a hail of grad rocket fire hit at least 67 residential buildings. At least 262 more people have been killed since January 13 in what the United Nations has called the "worst hostilities" since a ceasefire agreement came into effect in September.

In the wake of the renewed violence officials in Washington and Brussels have said that a fresh round of economic sanctions against Russia are under contemplation.

"We are deeply concerned about the latest break in the ceasefire and the aggression that these separatists — with Russian backing, Russian equipment, Russian financing, Russian training and, Russian troops — are conducting," US President Barack Obama told reporters on Sunday.

Although military interventions and support were ruled out, Washington said that it would be working jointly with European partners to further "ratchet up the pressure" on Russia. European Union foreign ministers are expected to hold an extraordinary session to discuss the crisis in Ukraine on Thursday.

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In a televised interview on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin struck back against the threat of further sanctions by claiming that the Ukrainian army was a "foreign legion" of NATO deployed with the aim of "restraining Russia."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg dismissed the claim as ridiculous and accused Moscow of sending a new wave of weapons across the border to rebel forces. "We have seen a substantial increase in the flow of equipment from Russia to the separatists in Ukraine," he said.

Moscow has repeatedly denied that it provides financial aid and weapons to the separatist forces in Ukraine, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

As the diplomatic wrangling continued, clashes flared all along the frontline on Monday. Just north of Debaltseve, a government-held enclave where thousands of Ukrainian troops are surrounded on three sides by separatist forces, heavy fights broke out near Popasnaya and Mironovskiy. The loss of these strategically important positions would strike a significant below to government forces in Debaltseve, further tightening the already bottleneck options for a retreat.

Rebel-held territories further south also came under heavy bombardment. In a visit to Horlivka (also known by its Russian name Gorlovka,) one of the worst affected cities, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the so-called "Donetsk People's Republic" toured a school and residential block hit by shelling. He then led a minute's silence at a memorial service for those killed by the fighting in the city.

Visiting a local hospital, the rebel leader spoke with doctors and the wounded before declaring that the fight would go on. "The only way to resolve the problems in Gorlovka is with offensive measures," he told reporters. By the end of the visit windows of nearby buildings were already shaking with the force of nearby explosions as a fresh round of shells hit the east and center of the city less than a mile away.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem