Debaltseve (Ukraine): Battles raged between government forces and pro-Russian rebels for control of a strategic transport hub as the death toll mounted in east Ukraine following the collapse of ceasefire talks.
Intense artillery fire thundered around the Kiev- controlled town of Debaltseve yesterday, a key position between the rebel bastions of Donetsk and Lugansk, where insurgent fighters are trying to encircle Ukrainian troops.
A convoy carrying an AFP crew into the beleaguered town - which once had a population of about 25,000 - came under fire, blowing out the windows of a bus in the convoy and lightly injuring two people.
Officials said civilians were being evacuated along the only passable road linking the town to the government side and that conditions were increasingly dire for those left behind.
"People are fleeing because the shelling is non-stop. There's no water, electricity or heating in the town," local police commander Yevgen Lukhaniv told AFP.
Ukrainian military spokesman Volodymyr Polyovyi in Kiev said "constant battles" were going on around Debaltseve but pledged that government forces would not give up control of the last remaining road into the town.
The surge in fighting comes as Washington and NATO's military commander appear to be moving towards supplying arms to Ukrainian forces, The New York Times reported yesterday.
President Barack Obama's administration was reviewing whether to provide "lethal assistance", in addition to non-lethal aid such as body armour and medical equipment which it already supplies to Kiev, it said.
"A comprehensive approach is warranted, and we agree that defensive equipment and weapons should be part of that discussion," a Pentagon official told the Times.
Western governments and Ukraine have accused Russia of sending regular troops and arms to bolster the rebels and spearhead the latest offencive - claims Moscow has repeatedly denied.
The rebels, however, are equipped with the heavy weaponry of a regular army, hardware they claim to have captured from fleeing Ukrainian forces.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine has now left at least 5,100 people dead since April.