Russia-backed separatists mounted a vicious assault in eastern Ukraine ahead of a weekend ceasefire deadline, pummeling a strategic railway hub with wave upon wave of shelling in a last-minute grab for territory killing at least 26 people across the region.
The fiercest confrontations focused on the government-held town of Debaltseve, a key transport center that has been on the receiving end of dozens of artillery and rocket salvos in the 24-hour period after the peace deal was sealed on Thursday by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France.
Associated Press reporters observed intense shelling Friday along the highway north of Debaltseve, which remains the town's only land link with the rest of government-controlled territory. The deadline for the warring sides to halt hostilities is Sunday at one minute after midnight.
Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted Petro Mekhed, Ukraine's deputy defense minister, as saying that separatist forces had been tasked with hoisting their flags over Debaltseve, as well as the key port city of Mariupol, before the cease-fire takes hold. Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said 11 soldiers have been killed and 40 wounded across eastern Ukraine since the agreement was reached in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.
At least eight civilians also have died in government-controlled territory, regional authorities loyal to Kiev said, while the rebels said seven civilians were killed in artillery attacks on the separatist-held cities of Luhansk and Horlivka. Shells landed yesterday as far as Artemivsk, a government -held town 25 miles behind the front line.
Associated Press reporters saw the body of a child killed after rocket fire hit a kindergarten there, and regional officials said the child and one other civilian died in the attack. In recent days, separatist fighters have nearly completely encircled Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve, where all but a few thousand civilians have fled the fighting. Ukraine says Debaltseve should remain in government control under the terms of a September peace deal.
A copy of that agreement leaked to Ukrainian media shows the town lying on the government's side of the line of division agreed by both the rebels and Ukrainian officials. But even as Thursday's peace deal was announced, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appeared to disagree over the town's future. Putin said the rebels consider the Ukrainian forces there surrounded and expect them to surrender, while Ukraine insisted its troops have not been blocked.