Battle rages for town where Ukraine rebels reject ceasefire

admin   •   February 17, 2015   •   2199

Members of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic army collect parts of a destroyed Ukrainian army tank in the town of Vuhlehirsk, about 10 km (6 miles) to the west of Debaltseve, More... CREDIT: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER

Members of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic army collect parts of a destroyed Ukrainian army tank in the town of Vuhlehirsk, about 10 km (6 miles) to the west of Debaltseve, More…
CREDIT: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER

(Reuters) – Pro-Russian rebels pounded encircled Ukrainian government forces on Monday and Kiev said it would not pull back heavy guns while a truce was being violated, leaving a European-brokered peace deal on the verge of collapse.

The European Union kept pressure on Russia and the rebels by announcing a new list of separatists and Russians targeted with sanctions, to which Moscow promised an “adequate” response.

The United States said it was “gravely concerned” by the fighting in and around the town of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine after a ceasefire agreement that came into force on Sunday and said it was closely monitoring reports of a new column of Russian military equipment moving toward the region.

“These aggressive actions and statements by the Russia-backed separatists threaten the most recent ceasefire,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. “We call on Russia and the separatists it backs to halt all attacks immediately.”

Fighting subsided in many parts of eastern Ukraine under a ceasefire deal reached last week in marathon talks involving the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.

But the truce appears to have been stillborn in Debaltseve, where the most intensive fighting has taken place in recent weeks.

“The situation is fragile,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the driving force behind the deal reached on Thursday after all-night talks in the Belarussian capital Minsk.

“It was always clear that much remains to be done. And I have always said that there are no guarantees that what we are trying to do succeeds. It will be an extremely difficult path,” she told reporters in Berlin.

Merkel, along with the leaders of France and Ukraine, expressed concern about continued fighting in Debaltseve and said observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) must have “free access” for their work in eastern Ukraine.

Rebels said soon after the ceasefire came into effect they had no intention of observing it at Debaltseve, where they have been advancing since January and now have a Ukrainian unit all but encircled.

Washington says the rebel operation around the town, which sits on a strategic railway hub, is being assisted by the Russian armed forces, which Moscow denies.

The U.S. State Department spokeswoman called on Russia and the separatists to engage with the OSCE to facilitate the cease fire.

The OSCE said on Sunday that the rebels had refused to allow its monitors to reach Debaltseve after the ceasefire took effect.

Reuters reporters near the front said Debaltseve was being relentlessly bombarded with artillery. At least six tanks as well as armoured personnel carriers and artillery could be seen in woods near Vuhlehirsk, 10 km (six miles) west of Debaltseve, which the rebels captured a week ago.

Military trucks headed along the main road in the direction of the town to regular bursts of shelling and the firing of Grad rockets and machine guns.

“You can hear there is no ceasefire,” said a rebel fighter with a black ski mask who gave his name as Scorpion, his nom de guerre, and blamed the fighting on Kiev’s forces. “Debaltseve is our land. And we will take Debaltseve.”

STALEMATE OVER WITHDRAWAL OF BIG GUNS

A rebel commander, Eduard Basurin, said Ukrainian troops had violated the ceasefire 27 times in the past 24 hours.

Kiev said its forces had been shelled more than 100 times in eastern Ukraine since the truce took effect, five of its servicemen had been killed and 25 wounded, and that it could not carry out an agreement to pull back big guns in such conditions.

“The pre-condition for withdrawal of heavy weapons is fulfilling Point One of the Minsk agreements – the ceasefire. One hundred and twelve attacks are not an indicator of a ceasefire,” said a Kiev military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko.

A rebel leader, Denis Pushilin, responded by saying his forces were “only ready for a mutual withdrawal of equipment.”

In another complication likely to set back hopes of peace, he and another separatist leader said the rebels would pull out of the Minsk agreements if Kiev made any further moves to abandon Ukraine’s neutral status — also a red line for Moscow, which fears Ukraine might seek to join the NATO alliance.

The separatists offered the Ukrainian forces a safe corridor out of Debaltseve if they gave up their weapons but a military spokesman for Kiev, Vladislav Seleznyov, ruled this out.

“There are the Minsk agreements, according to which Debaltseve is ours. We will not leave,” he said.

ONLY A GLIMMER OF HOPE

Fighting began in east Ukraine after the overthrow of a Moscow-backed president in Ukraine last February and Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula a month later.

The West says Putin, who has called parts of Ukraine “New Russia,” has sent troops and weapons to back the rebels. Moscow denies this and accuses the West of waging a proxy war in Ukraine to seek “regime change” in Russia.

Hopes that Thursday’s deal will end a conflict that has killed more than 5,000 people have been dampened by the collapse of an earlier truce when rebels advanced last month.

Western countries say they reserve the option of expanding economic sanctions on Moscow over the crisis, hoping a growing financial crisis in Russia will persuade Putin to use his influence with the rebels to stop the fighting. But some fear he wants the conflict to fester for years so that Kiev cannot control east Ukraine and Russia can retain influence there.

The EU’s new list of 19 people and nine organisations hit by asset freezes and travel bans was dominated by Ukrainian separatists but also targeted popular Russian singer Iosif Kobzon, sometimes dubbed Russia’s equivalent of Frank Sinatra, and two Russian deputy defence ministers.

“One thing is clear — the decision, which will be followed by an adequate response, runs contrary to common sense and will not help efforts to find a solution to the inter-Ukrainian conflict,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Richard Balmforth and Alessandra Prentice in Kiev, Adrian Croft in Brussels, Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia, Michael Nienaber in Berlin and Andy Sullivan and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Peter Graff. Giles Elgood and Chris Reese)

U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo in Ankara for talks on Turkey’s Syria offensive

Robie de Guzman   •   October 17, 2019

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens to US President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks during a meeting with President of Italy Sergio Mattarella in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 16 October 2019. EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS / POOL

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Ankara on Thursday (October 17) as part of Washington’s efforts to convince Turkey to halt its offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria.

Turkey’s week-long assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 160,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for Trump.

Trump has been accused of abandoning Kurdish fighters, who were Washington’s main partners in the battle to dismantle Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria, by withdrawing troops from the border as Turkey launched its offensive on Oct. 9.

Following a phone call with Erdogan, who has rejected calls for ceasefire or mediation, Trump dispatched top aides including Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Ankara for emergency talks to try to persuade Turkey to halt the offensive. (Reuters)

Britain clinches Brexit deal, Johnson now faces parliament challenge

Robie de Guzman   •   October 17, 2019

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (not pictured) at 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, 15 October 2019. EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN / POOL

Britain clinched a last-minute Brexit deal with the European Union on Thursday (October 17), but still faced a challenge in getting it approved by parliament.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that Britain and the European Union had agreed a “great” new Brexit deal and urged lawmakers to approve it at the weekend.

“We’ve got a great new deal that takes back control,” Johnson said in a tweet.

Johnson is hoping to get approval for the agreement in a vote at an extraordinary session of the British parliament on Saturday, to pave the way for an orderly departure on October 31.

However, the Northern Irish party that Johnson needs to help ratify any agreement has refused to support the deal that was hammered out over weeks of negotiations.

The head of the main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said in Brussels he was “unhappy” with the deal and would vote against it. Lawmakers in his party said they had been told to vote for another referendum on Saturday.

Johnson has no majority in the 650-seat parliament, and in practice needs 320 votes to get a deal ratified this Saturday – in what will be the first Saturday session since the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. The DUP have 10 votes.

The British parliament defeated similar deals struck by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, three times.

Johnson won the top job by pledging to renegotiate May’s agreement, though he is reviving the bulk of it now, with changes to the protocol on how to treat the border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

The uncertainty over parliament’s approval means that, two weeks before the latest date for the United Kingdom’s departure from the world’s largest trading bloc, the possible outcomes still range from an orderly departure to a chaotic exit or even another referendum that could reverse the entire endeavour.

It is unclear what Brexit will ultimately mean for the United Kingdom and the European project – built on the ruins of World War Two as a way to integrate economic power and thus end centuries of European bloodshed.

Johnson, who was the face of the campaign to leave the EU in Britain’s 2016 referendum, has repeatedly said he will not ask for a delay – even though parliament has passed a law to oblige him to do just that if it has not agreed and ratified a deal by Saturday. (Reuters)

Pelosi, Trump exchange ‘meltdown’ barbs over meeting on U.S. policy in Syria

Robie de Guzman   •   October 17, 2019

US Speaker of the House Democrat Nancy Pelosi delivers remarks to members of the news media outside the West Wing of the White House following a meeting between US President Donald J. Trump and Congressional leaders, in Washington, DC, USA, 16 October 2019. Trump met with Congressional leaders to discuss the US withdrawal from Syria. EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democratic leaders on Wednesday (October 16) cut short a meeting with Republican President Donald Trump after he had a “meltdown” over a House of Representatives vote condemning his Syria withdrawal and showed no signs of having a plan to deal with a crisis there.

Trump called Pelosi a “third-rate politician” and the meeting in the White House deteriorated into a diatribe, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters.

Later, in remarks to reporters on Capitol Hill, Pelosi said that Trump actually called her a “third-grade” politician.

“What we witnessed on the part of the president was a meltdown. Sad to say,” Pelosi had said upon leaving.

Trump posted on Twitter on Wednesday night – “Nervous Nancy’s unhinged meltdown!” with a photo of Pelosi standing up and pointing at him during the meeting.

The Democrats exited the meeting complaining that they were expecting to hear Trump provide details on a plan for dealing with an unfolding “crisis” in Syria but instead were subjected to “derogatory” language from him about congressional Democrats and Democratic former President Barack Obama.

White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham, in a statement, called Pelosi’s decision to walk out “baffling but not surprising.”

She added that after Democratic leaders “chose to storm out,” remaining Republican leaders held a productive meeting.

Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces ahead of a Turkish offensive last week into northern Syria against U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters, removing their protection, has been roundly criticized, even by fellow Republicans. The Americans and the Kurds had fought alongside each other against Islamic State militants, some of whom were captured and jailed under Kurdish control in Syria.

Pelosi said Trump was upset at the start of the closed meeting because so many Republicans joined Democrats to vote for a resolution condemning his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northeastern Syria.

The vote was 354 to 60, with dozens of Trump’s fellow Republicans joining the majority Democrats. The split underscored deep unhappiness in Congress over Trump’s action, which many lawmakers view as abandoning loyal Kurdish fighters.

“I think that vote – the size of the vote, more than 2-1 of the Republicans voted to oppose what the president did – probably got to the president. Because he was shaken up by it,” Pelosi said after emerging from the White House.

“And that’s why we couldn’t continue in the meeting because he was just not relating to the reality of it.” (Reuters)

(Production: Kristin Neubauer)

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