Fighting intensified in eastern Ukraine on Sunday, one day after representatives of the government and pro-Russia separatists failed to reach a truce at a meeting brokered by Russian and international mediators.
Twenty fighters died and dozens were wounded in the latest combat, according to spokesmen for both sides. The separatist forces continued to claim that they had encircled the Ukrainian forces, an assertion the government denied.
“Despite all their efforts and ungrounded claims of victory our army concentrated enough troops, armor and artillery in the area to repel all their attacks,” said Yuri Povkh, a Defense Ministry adviser. “In the given situation, I don’t see a chance of our forces in the area getting encircled by the enemy.”
The separatist command, however, said the Russia-backed insurgents had tightened a noose around several thousand Ukrainian troops near the town of Debaltsevo, in the Donetsk region about 60 miles northwest of the Russian border.
“We have seized 15 new villages in the area and tightened the noose around a Ukrainian army group which numbers between 8,000 and 10,000 men,” said Eduard Basurin, chief political officer of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic armed forces. “They tried earlier in the day to break out … but this attempt was contained by our troops.”
Basurin said the fighting Sunday had killed seven separatist fighters and wounded 24.
At a briefing in Kiev, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said 13 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and 20 wounded in the 24 hours ending late Sunday. The UNIAN news agency said 12 civilians had been wounded.
The defense spokesman, Volodymyr Polevoy, said the separatist forces had used artillery, mortars, tanks and Grad missile systems.
Interior Ministry advisor Anton Gerashchenko wrote on his Facebook account that the separatists had concentrated 95% of their tanks and other hardware on the approaches to Debaltsevo.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe complained that a meeting on Saturday in Minsk, Belarus, didn’t produce a truce because representatives sent by the self-proclaimed republics in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions were not authorized to sign any documents.
“In fact, they were not even prepared to discuss implementation of a cease-fire and withdrawal of heavy weapons,” the organization said in a statement posted on its website. Noting “the seriously deteriorating situation and growing numbers of casualties,” the organization called on both sides to “engage responsibly” and come to an agreement.
Special correspondent Butenko reported from Kiev and Times staff writer Loiko from Moscow.