The United States has released images that allegedly show Russian military equipment being used in an assault in eastern Ukraine ahead of a ceasefire that is supposed to start late Saturday night.
Geoffrey Pyatt, US Ambassador to Ukraine, posted three images on Twitter that allegedly show artillery lines near the eastern town of Debaltseve, air defense systems, and plumes of smoke from a "Russian multiple rocket launcher deployment."
"We are confident these are Russian military, not separatist, systems," Pyatt wrote.
Russia has repeatedly denied claims that it is arming separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine.
The claims by the US ambassador come during intense fighting that has killed nearly a dozen soldiers and several civilians in the past 24 hours, a Ukrainian military spokesperson told Reuters.
On Friday, pro-Russia rebel fighters expanded further into eastern Ukraine and prepared to take the city of Debaltseve, which is strategically located about halfway between the breakaway republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. On January 29, rebel leader Eduard Basurin said that separatists had taken control of the main highway linking Debaltseve to the other territories under separatist control.
Video published Friday shows the Cossack National Guard, a pro-Russia volunteer separatist militia, preparing to launch an offensive on the town.
Meanwhile, a pro-Kiev volunteer military group, the Azov Battalion, carried out attacks to recapture territory near the rebel-held town of Novoazovsk. Video shows the battalion launching an attack Saturday on the village of Shyrokyne, following attacks Friday on Sakhanka, another village in the area.
Mortar fire also hit several residential districts Saturday in Donetsk, killing at least three people. The shells reportedly hit just a few hundred meters away from where Aleksandr Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, was due to give a press conference.
The fighting has continued to rage even after a peace deal was negotiated and signed Thursday night. The deal, brokered by France and Germany, calls for a ceasefire between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russia separatist groups. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko finally signed it, along with the French and German leaders, after 16 hours of talks.
The continued fighting has raised fears that the ceasefire, which is supposed to take effect Saturday at midnight, will not be enough to bring peace. A previous ceasefire agreement that was negotiated in September did little to quell the violence.
"What sort of ceasefire? Don't make me laugh. This is already the second or third ceasefire," a pro-Russia rebel told Reuters at a checkpoint in Donetsk .
In response to the ongoing fighting Friday, the Group of Seven industrialized countries and the European Union issued a statement of "concern about the situation in Ukraine." The statement urged all sides to cease fighting.
The statement said the pro-Russia rebels were "operating beyond the line of contact agreed upon in the Minsk agreements of September 2014, causing numerous civilian casualties."
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed some 5,000 people since it began last April.
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