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Ukraine evacuates civilians from key town as rebels attack - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Ukrainian army soldiers patrol the empty streets of Debaltseve, in the Donetsk region, on February 3, 2015. (AFP Photo/Manu Brabo)

Ukrainian army soldiers patrol the empty streets of Debaltseve, in the Donetsk region, on February 3, 2015.
(AFP Photo/Manu Brabo)

Kiev, Bloomberg News—Ukraine evacuated civilians from a strategically important junction in the country’s east as the worsening fighting with pro-Russian rebels led to calls for a military buildup on both sides.

Germany said the European Union may slap new sanctions on Russia if the crisis worsens, while the town of Debaltseve, a key railway and road crossing between the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, remained under fire from separatists, according to Ukrainian military spokesman Leonid Matyukhin. The region of Donetsk, where 3,070 people have fled the most dangerous locations since January 28, is continuing efforts to evacuate people, the regional government said on its website.

The “issue of evacuating civilians, including children, needs to become one of the key priorities,” Iryna Herashchenko, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s envoy to eastern Ukraine, said in Kiev on Tuesday, calling for a meeting with the Red Cross and the United Nations.

As attempts to reestablish a truce have failed, a separatist leader ordered boosting troop numbers by tens of thousands starting next week. To bolster Ukraine’s ability to respond, eight former US officials urged President Barack Obama and NATO to send 3 billion US dollars of military aid. Administration officials say they are focused on a diplomatic solution but are examining all options.

More than 5,358 people have died and 12,235 have been wounded in the conflict since mid-April, including at least 224 civilians killed in the three weeks to February 1 alone, the UN said in an e-mailed statement on Tuesday, citing a “conservative” estimate based on official data.

Russia wants to use the separatist offensive to reassert its global and European influence and erect a buffer zone on its border, Petr Pavel, the head of the Czech General Staff, who has been elected as the next chairman of the NATO Military Committee, said in an interview in Prague last week.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU may introduce new sanctions if the crisis worsens. Last week, EU foreign ministers gave a green light to prepare steps to extend penalties banning financing for Russian state-owned banks and prohibit the export of advanced energy-exploration technology.

“If there is a further worsening of the situation, a qualitatively new situation, then work on further sanctions will become necessary,” Merkel said in Berlin on Tuesday.

She reiterated her opposition to delivering lethal weapons to Ukrainian forces and said the crisis should be solved by diplomatic efforts “even if it takes a long time and there continue to be many failed efforts.”

Russia plans to carry out military exercises involving its Caspian Sea naval forces, the Black Sea Fleet’s air force and motorized infantry detachments, Interfax news service reported.

While Ukraine and its NATO and EU allies say there is ample evidence that Russia is sending troops and weapons to help the separatists, Russia denies military involvement in Ukraine. The Kremlin says the government in Kiev is waging war against its own citizens and discriminating against Russian speakers, who make up the majority of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Pro-Russian forces in Ukraine seek to increase the rebel army to as many as 100,000 people, Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the self-declared Donetsk republic, said Monday, according to the separatist-run DAN news service. “Voluntary” mobilization will start on February 9, Interfax reported on Tuesday, citing Zakharchenko.

Russia regrets the failure of the peace talks held in Minsk and regards the decision by the rebels to take a tough stance with Ukraine as justified, Interfax reported on Tuesday, citing an unidentified Kremlin official.

“No one will publicly admit that the Russian army is there; they all do privately, but publicly no statements,” Estonian President Toomas Ilves said at a conference in the capital, Tallinn. “This unwillingness to actually say ‘the emperor is in a tank’ is startling. The end result is that using 20, if not 30, 40-year-old equipment, Ukraine is going to lose. There is no doubt about it.”

A report, issued jointly by the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, urges the US to spend 1 billion US dollars annually for the next three years on military aid that includes reconnaissance drones, armored Humvees and radars to detect the source of enemy artillery fire.

Ukraine will probably “remain too unimportant for Western leaders to take bigger risks in their strategy” unless they see an imminent danger of a spillover into NATO territory, Jan Techau, head of the Carnegie Endowment’s Brussels office, wrote on the research group’s website. “As long as Putin stays away from that, he will probably be able to get away with a lot more than he has so far.”