Representatives from Russia, Ukraine, pro-Russia separatist forces, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) arrived Saturday in the capital of Belarus in a bid to reopen peace negotiations and quell the resurgence of violence in Ukraine's troubled east.
The talks quickly faltered, however, as Kiev's envoy reportedly accused the separatist representatives of undermining the meeting by issuing ultimatums and refusing to discuss a possible ceasefire. Former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma reportedly said the separatist envoys refused "to discuss a plan of measures for a quick ceasefire and a pull-back of heavy weapons."
On Saturday, Turkish ambassador Ertugrul Apakan, the OSCE's chief monitor in Ukraine, condemned the recent shelling of densely populated civilian areas.
"It should be understood that the main outcome of such violence is a surge in human suffering," Apakan said. "I urge all sides to exercise maximum restraint, and fully assume their responsibility to prevent further displacement and suffering, and to redouble their efforts to reach a political settlement."
At least seven civilians were killed Friday as shells hit multiple districts in Donetsk, the administrative capital of the rebel-held territory.
One shell hit close to a line of people waiting for food rations outside a center distributing humanitarian aid. In the horrific aftermath of the attack, bodies were sprawled on the ground with bread and other food items scattered around them. A distraught woman fell to her knees in the snow sobbing hysterically as she realized her husband was among the dead. At least five people were killed and dozens more were injured.
According to local authorities, eight people were killed Friday by rocket fire in Gorlovka, a rebel-held city 27 miles northwest of Donetsk.
Civilian casualties also mounted in nearby Debaltseve, a government-held transport hub that is now surrounded on three sides by advancing rebels.
Separatists also partially seized the city of Uglegorsk following a day of fierce fighting that killed at least seven civilians, according to the regional police chief Vyacheslav Abroskin.
On Friday, Alexander Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the so-called "Donetsk People's Republic," gave an interview with a Russian state media channel from the scene of the battle. He said Ukrainian forces attempting to retreat from the "cauldron" of Debaltseve "will come under the crossfire of our artillery."
Saturday's peace negotiations in Minsk were reportedly delayed by disputes over who would represent the rebels at the meeting. According to Russian news agency Interfax, Kuchma said he would only sit at the table if Zakharchenko and rebel leader Igor Plotnitsky were present.
The humanitarian crisis across the region has deepened following a renewed offensive by rebel forces this month to recapture territories lost over the summer.
Thousands of people near the frontline of the fighting are living without access to water and electricity, and a growing number of residents of Donetsk city are dependent on monthly food rations delivered by aid agencies.
According to the United Nations, more than 5,000 people have been killed and 1.2 million displaced since the conflict began in mid-April. A recent UNICEF report found that at least 1,000 children in Donetsk city are regularly forced to seek refuge in makeshift bomb shelters with only limited access to food, water, and hygiene products.
At an emergency meeting Thursday, foreign ministers from the European Union agreed to extend economic sanctions against Moscow, which the West has accused of providing weapons and financial support to the rebels. Washington backed the move and also pledged to tighten its sanctions on Russia.
Russia countered allegations of its involvement in Ukraine by claiming that the Ukrainian army is a "NATO foreign legion."
NATO announced Friday that it plans to establish command centers in six eastern European countries by 2016. The move is aimed at increasing military exercises in countries that border Russia, ensuring NATO forces are familiar with the territory in case a deployment is required.
"This will be the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem