Leaders Say Ukraine Truce Deal Still On After Debaltseve Clashes

Ukraine Seeks U.N. Assistance as Cease-Fire Falters

Leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine agreed that the truce accord reached in Minsk must be implemented even after fighting forced the government in Kiev to abandon a strategic crossroad town in the east.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and presidents Vladimir Putin, Francois Hollande and Petro Poroshenko “agreed to stand by the Minsk agreement despite the grave breach of the cease-fire in Debaltseve,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement after a phone call among the four leaders on Thursday.

The continued violence underscores the tenuous nature of the cease-fire brokered by European leaders last week in the Belarusian capital. It also shows the difficulty Ukraine has had holding territory the rebels are intent on taking in the 10-month conflict that’s killed more than 5,600 people and sent Russia’s relations with the U.S. and Europe to the post-Cold War lows.

The nations’ leaders “agreed that concrete steps need to be taken immediately to enable a comprehensive implementation of the cease-fire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons under observation” by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, according to the German government statement.

Breakaway Regions

The conversation took place after the Ukrainian army said 90 percent of its troops left Debaltseve and took up positions around the rail and highway junction linking the breakaway regions Donetsk and Luhansk. Donetsk rebels are ready to hand over bodies of dead troops to Ukraine, RIA Novosti reported, citing separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko.

Pro-Russian separatists continued shelling Ukrainian forces near the Sea of Azov port city of Mariupol, military spokesman Anatoliy Stelmakh said Thursday.

“Militants concentrated their forces near the village of Shyrokyne” near Mariupol, Stelmakh said via a video-link in Kiev. “It’s being fired upon practically all day.”

Ukrainian assets reflected concern that the cease-fire will crumble. The hryvnia weakened 0.6 percent to a record 27.25 per dollar by 1:19 p.m. in Kiev. Benchmark sovereign notes due July 2017 traded at an all-time low of 46.4 cents on the dollar, extending Wednesday’s record slide of 6.3 cents and lifting the yield to 49.6 percent. The Russian ruble weakened 0.6 percent to 61.978 against the dollar.

United Nations peacekeepers should be deployed along the front line and rebel-controlled border sections with Russia, Oleksandr Turchynov, the head of Ukraine’s national security council, said on Wednesday.

Peacekeeping Force

Donetsk rebels wouldn’t object to a deployment of an international peacekeeping force on the line between Ukraine and the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Interfax news service reported, citing Eduard Basurin, a defense official for the Donetsk rebels. Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said earlier that the request for peacekeepers would call into question agreements reached in Minsk, RIA Novosti reported.

While Ukrainian troops withdrew from an encirclement in Debaltseve, a new line of confrontation with the rebels is forming, according to Turchynov.

The conflict is threatening to “become chronic,” Turchynov said. “Peacekeepers will ensure taking the first real step toward resolving this tragedy, which was initiated and is supported by Russia.”

Ukraine, the U.S., the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization say Russia is backing the separatists with hardware, cash and troops -- accusations the leaders in Kremlin deny. Russia says Ukraine is waging war on its own citizens and discriminates against Russian speakers, a majority in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Ukraine and its allies in the EU and the U.S. say Mariupol may be the next objective in a potential offensive to extend rebel-held territory to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Putin annexed in March.

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