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Battle for Debaltseve threatens fragile cease-fire in Ukraine

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Petr David Josek/AP

(Read caption) A Ukrainian army's truck with a Smerch missile launcher passes on a road stretching away from the town of Artemivsk, Ukraine, towards Debaltseve on Tuesday. Ukrainian government troops and Russia-backed rebels failed Tuesday to start pulling back heavy weaponry from the front line in eastern Ukraine as a deadline passed to do so.

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Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian rebels continued fighting around a strategic transportation hub in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday, threatening to unravel a fragile cease-fire just three days after it was implemented.

The battle over the town of Debaltseve rages on despite calls from Western leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin to allow the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to oversee the shaky truce and the withdrawal of heavy weapons.

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Fighting has eased in many areas since the internationally brokered cease-fire went into effect at midnight Saturday, Reuters reports. But Debaltseve (see map here) remains a hotspot. Ongoing skirmishes in and around the town raises doubts that the new deal reached last week in Minsk, Belarus, will hold. Its potential collapse comes as a heavy blow for war-weary Ukraine, where more than 5,300 people have died in 10 months of conflict.

Monitors from the OSCE were expected to try to reach Debaltseve on Tuesday after Mr. Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko agreed to give them free access to the east.

“Furthermore the withdrawal of heavy weaponry should begin from Tuesday, as agreed in Minsk,” Ms. Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said in a statement. 

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Kremlin also issued a statement confirming the agreement. But so far the calls for both sides to stop fighting and withdraw their heavy weapons from the front line have gone unheeded.

Under the Minsk deal, Ukrainian forces are required to pull back from the "actual" line of contact, meaning that rebels will be allowed to keep the 500 square miles of territory they've gained over the past month. But as The Christian Science Monitor’s Fred Weir reports, the agreement does not specify what should happen in Debaltseve and the surrounding region – where both sides appear unwilling to back down.

The Russian-backed rebels have refused to halt attacks on the town, where they have reportedly encircled several thousand Ukrainian forces. Meanwhile, Kiev says it will not pull back its artillery, tanks, and rocket launchers until the cease-fire takes hold.

The New York Times reported on Monday that Ukrainian artillery trucks were heading toward Debaltseve. On Tuesday, Agence France-Presse reported rebel trucks heading in the same direction amid intense shelling.

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"Shelling is ongoing, so there is no cease-fire and the conditions for withdrawing heavy weapons have not been met," a Ukrainian defense spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

The Ukrainian military reports that the separatists have fired on its forces more than 129 times since the cease-fire was established, killing five government troops and wounding 25.

The United States said it was "gravely concerned" by the fighting in and around Debaltseve and that it was closely monitoring reports of a new column of Russian military equipment moving toward the region.

“We call on Russia and the separatists it backs to halt all attacks immediately,” US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.