Ukrainian national security leaders have appealed for a United Nations peacekeeping force in the separatist-occupied eastern regions of the country, but the call was immediately rejected Thursday by the insurgents and their Russian backers.
The appeal by the National Security and Defense Council spurred accusations by Kremlin officials and the separatists that Kiev wasn't committed to a peace plan hammered out a week earlier in the Belarus capital of Minsk -- a cease-fire ignored by the insurgents when they captured the strategic town of Debaltseve on Tuesday.
Russia's state-run media cast the takeover of the rail junction as a victory in the 10-month-old war in eastern Ukraine and quoted national and foreign officials as saying Kiev had been forced to "capitulate" to the stronger force occupying the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Russian television broadcast images of fighters herding captured Ukrainian troops along the town's roadsides.
Ukraine's Defense Ministry said at least 13 soldiers were killed and 157 wounded in the retreat from Debaltseve on Wednesday. The ministry put the number of troops taken prisoner at 93, with nearly that number still missing from the months-long battle.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement on the presidential website that Kiev would prefer a European peacekeeping force. He also ruled out any Russian participation in the event of a foreign deployment, calling Moscow an "aggressor" in the conflict.
Soon after the Ukrainian security leaders voted to seek a peacekeeping mission for eastern Ukraine, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, condemned the request as evidence that Ukraine's government has no intention of abiding by the commitments it made in Minsk.
"If some other schemes are proposed, it raises the question of whether the Minsk agreements are going to be adhered to or not," Churkin said.
As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, Russia would have the power to veto any peacekeeping mission in the event the world body receives a formal request for one from the Ukrainian government.
Other senior Russian officials lashed out at Poroshenko's proposal for deployment of European Union peacekeepers.
"The Minsk accords certainly don't provide for such a measure,” Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of parliament, told journalists in Moscow. "In my opinion that may become an element eroding the Minsk agreements."
Pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine also rejected the idea.
"If we need peacekeepers, those should be Russian Federation peacekeepers,” Andrei Purgin, speaker of the purported legislature in the Donetsk People's Republic, said in an interview with Russia's Mir-24 television network. He added that another foreign force was unnecessary as there is already a monitoring mission deployed in eastern Ukraine by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which includes Russia in its membership.
United Nations "blue-helmet" missions are intended to patrol a viable cease-fire and have little authority to enforce compliance. Deployments and troop contributions are also contingent on the consent of all parties to the conflict, which gives the separatists the ability to block any foreign intervention involving peacekeepers from countries that have been critical of Russia's role in fomenting the Ukraine violence.
Separatist leaders rejected the idea of a peacekeeping force even though, historically, such U.N. deployments have served to preserve the territorial status quo for years while negotiations over a permanent settlement drag on.
"We have to analyze the situation, look for a possible stabilization without engaging external forces; if there is no such possibility, we might resort to the peacekeeping option,” Vladislav Deinego, of the leadership in separatist-occupied Luhansk, told Russia's Sputnik news agency.
Denis Pushilin, a separatist leader in Donetsk, said a U.N. peacekeeping mission would violate the Minsk agreement, which set out its own timetable for the withdrawal of heavy weapons, border security and elections in the separatist-held areas for new leaders who would gain broader governing powers in a constitutional revision to be undertaken by Kiev.
The separatists and their allies in Moscow have called in the past for U.N. intervention to protect civilians in the areas they have taken, with an aim to restore commerce and essential services in the war-ravaged regions. Their rejection of a U.N. mission now could signal their intent to move further into government-held areas.
That fear, prevalent among those who support restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity, was intensified Thursday with a fresh artillery barrage near the vital government-held port of Mariupol.
Ukrainian military spokesman Anatoliy Stelmakh told journalists in Kiev that the separatists repeatedly shelled villages on the road to Mariupol in the last hours before the Minsk cease-fire took effect on Sunday. Mortar rounds were also fired Thursday into government-controlled Shyrokine, a town about 15 miles east of Mariupol.
The separatists' backers in Moscow are believed to covet Mariupol, a port city of 500,000, as it would open up a supply route from the Russian Federation to the Crimean peninsula, which the Russians seized and annexed early last year.
The European brokers of the Minsk agreement also appeared to oppose a peacekeeping mission for Ukraine at this time.
In a phone call among Chancellor Angela Merkel and Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Francois Hollande of France and Poroshenko, the leaders "agreed to stand by the Minsk agreement despite the grave breach of the cease-fire in Debaltseve," a German government statement said of the conversation.
Merkel and Hollande conducted the 16-hour negotiations in Minsk last week in what was seen as a move to quell a mounting campaign among U.S. foreign policy officials to send arms to the beleaguered Ukrainian government forces. Merkel has openly opposed arming the government, even in the face of convincing evidence that Russia has supplied the rebels with tanks, mounted guns and "volunteer" fighters.
More than 5,600 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since armed conflict broke out in April after Russian-armed fighters seized government and security buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk. More than 1 million people have fled the war zones for safe refuge in western Ukraine or across the eastern border with Russia.
Williams reported from Los Angeles and Loiko from Moscow.
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