The gloves are off in eastern Ukraine, as today a pro-Russia separatist leader promised to mobilize 100,000 fighters for the conflict in the region, while on Sunday the US stated that it would consider sending weapons to Ukrainian forces.
A day before that, peace talks in Minsk between representatives from the pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian authorities collapsed, shattering already fragile hopes for a ceasefire as fierce clashes continued to rage across the country's war-torn east.
Both sides reportedly walked away from the Minsk negotiating table in less than four hours after rebel representatives reportedly threatened a return to "full-scale battles along the frontline" if their demands were not met.
Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who was present throughout the supposed peace talks, told Interfax Ukraine that representatives sent by the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk "People's Republic's" demanded Kiev order an immediate unilateral ceasefire and recognize their expanded territory based on the situation on January 31.
"In fact, they were not even prepared to discuss implementation of a ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons," the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe which has overseen the Minsk meetings said in a statement released on Sunday.
The US currently provides only "non-lethal" items, such as body armor and night-vision goggles, to Ukraine. Also on Sunday, however, the Obama administration explained that it was reviewing whether it would send arms to Kiev.
"A comprehensive approach is warranted, and we agree that defensive equipment and weapons should be part of that discussion," a Pentagon official told the New York Times.
Then, rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko said at a press conference in Donetsk on Monday evening: "There will be general mobilization in the Donetsk People's Republic in 10 days' time, we plan on mobilizing up to 100,000 men."
Yet on the ground in Debaltseve, a small town at the bow of a government-held enclave jutting into rebel territory, the situation became increasingly desperate over the weekend as rebels continue their advance in claiming to seize the nearby villages of Uglegorsk and Nikshino. As the artillery battle for the pocket raged, desperate civilians tried to escape by squeezing into pick-up trucks, minivans, buses, and private cars with whatever possessions they could carry.
Fierce fighting has now rocked Debaltseve, which had a pre-war population of around 25,000, for more than two weeks after the pro-Russian forces announced a fresh offensive to take the enclave. The town sits on a strategically important rail hub and near a road that would provide a vital supply line between several major rebel-held cities.
A rickety reinforced bridge across a stretch of water is now the only route in and out of the territory. But on Sunday, as remaining locals waited nervously for buses that didn't come, even that option appeared to be closing as two vehicles containing volunteer rescue workers and fleeing civilians narrowly escaped after artillery hits struck close by.
In an interview with a Russian state-television channel from Uglegorsk on Friday, Zakharchenko said that Debaltseve kettle was "closed" as the intermittent exchange of fire continued in the background. "Anyone attempting to leave the cauldron will be caught in the crossfire of our artillery," the rebel leader warned.
Thousands of Ukrainian troops and a large number of military vehicles are stationed inside the Debaltseve pocket and losing the territory would prove a disastrous defeat for Kiev. Defeat here would be reminiscent of Ilovaisk — a battle in August 2014 which ended with hundreds of Ukrainian troops being killed in an ambush of mortar fire by rebel forces as they attempted to retreat from the encircled town on APCs and other military vehicles.
In Donetsk over the weekend the roar and thud of artillery fire echoed day and night as shells hit multiple districts across the city where the humanitarian situation is worsening by the day. Katiya Dynia, 22, speaking to VICE News from a basement in Petrovsky district where she has been living with her two children since September after her own apartment block was shelled, described the situation as "horrific."
Dynia spoke about one occasion when she tried to return to her home for a shower and described how her son became "paralyzed with fear," and lay down on the ground refusing to move as shells started to fall around them. "I had my daughter in my arms so I couldn't get him, I couldn't do anything. Fortunately my neighbor saw and came to rescue us," she said, holding back tears.
A recent UNICEF report found that more than 1,000 children across Donetsk are regularly seeking refuge in bomb shelters, often with minimal access to food, water, and hygiene products. Andriy Sanin, project coordinator of the Akhmetov Fund's aid distribution scheme, told VICE News that at least one in 10 people in the city are now dependent on food parcels.
The United Nations stated that the official death toll for the conflict up to January 21 stands at nearly 5,100, but also said that the true figure is "considerably higher." At least 1.2 million people have been displaced since the fighting began in mid-April 2014.
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