Ukrainian forces opened a new front against separatist rebels near the city of Mariupol on Tuesday, as the intensity of fighting in east Ukraine increased a day before a round of planned peace talks among Ukrainian, Russian, German and French officials in Minsk.
Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council said on Tuesday that its forces had "broken through the enemy defenses and went on the offensive" along the coast outside the Ukrainian-held city of Mariupol toward rebel-held Novoazovsk.
The Azov Battalion, a far-right Ukrainian militia based in Mariupol, announced the offensive on its page on the Russian social network Vkontakte. "There's a high intensity of fire," the battalion said. "Both sides are using weapons of various calibers. The enemy has mobilized its armored vehicles."
At a news conference in Donetsk, Eduard Basurin, a rebel official, confirmed that fighting had erupted there and said rebel forces were clashing with Ukrainian fighters in the town of Shyrokyne, east of Mariupol.
In a subsequent statement, the Azov Battalion said it had taken the town, and others in the area, explaining its new offensive as a way to "remove the threat of shelling" in Mariupol. A Grad rocket attackkilled at least 30 civilians in Mariupol and injured about 100 more on Jan. 24. An analysis of the impacts by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe determined the rockets came from the direction of rebel-held territory.
The new southern offensive came as signs emerged that Ukrainian troops were struggling to hold on to the city of Debaltseve, a key transport hub on the northern front that rebel forces have been trying to seize for weeks. The new Ukrainian attack could also be an attempt by Kiev to weaken the attacks on Debaltseve by forcing the rebels to fight on two fronts at once.
Zoryan Shkiryak, an adviser to Ukraine's Interior Ministry, described the situation in Debaltseve as "very tense" in a Facebook post on Tuesday. He said rebel forces had moved into the village of Lohvynove, advancing their move to encircle and cut off Debaltseve.
The village is situated just beside the only main highway that connects Debaltseve to the rest of Ukrainian-held territory. Mr. Shkiryak said Ukrainian forces continued to control the highway, though he noted that the rebels "haven't stopped their attempts to cut off the highway and drive Ukrainian soldiers into an entrapment."
Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed rebels are fighting in the streets of the village of Chornukhyne, about 7 miles to the east of Debaltseve, according a statement released by the Luhansk region governor's office. Some of Chornukhyne's streets have been taken by the rebels, but Ukrainian forces continue to hold a large part of the village, including the town hall, the statement said.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said pro-Russian militants had launched a rocket attack on the Ukrainian army's eastern headquarters in the city of Kramatorsk. Three people died and 15 were injured as a result of the attack, the regional administration said on its website.
Kramatorsk has been peaceful since early July, when Ukrainian forces retook it from separatist forces, and in recent months has served as the headquarters for Ukraine's so-called "anti-terrorist operation."
Mr. Poroshenko told parliament that there had been an attack on the Kramatorsk headquarters from a Tornado, a multiple-rocket system. The Ukrainian military operation said in a post on its Facebook page that shells fell on the airport, the location of army headquarters in the east, as well as civilian houses on the outskirts of Kramatorsk. The post said that they were likely fired from Horlivka, a militant-controlled town some 40 miles away.
The fighting comes as Russia announced a new round of military exercises in the military district that borders rebel-held territory. About 2,000 Russian soldiers, including military intelligence operatives and special forces, began field exercises on Tuesday, the press service for Russia's Southern Military District told the Interfax news agency. Russia's Black Sea Fleet, based in the newly annexed Sevastopol, also began combat exercises with more than 600 troops in the mountains of Crimea, Interfax reported.
Paul Sonne, Olga Razumovskaya, Alexander Kolyandr, The Wall Street Journal