Kiev: Truce talks between Ukraine`s government and pro-Russian insurgents appeared to collapse Friday after 24 people, mostly civilians, were reported killed in heavy weapons fire in eastern Ukraine, prompting new European criticism of Russia.
Plans for the talks in the Belarussian capital Minsk were announced on Thursday, raising hopes of dialogue amid the collapse of a September truce in a war that has killed at least 5,100 people, according to the United Nations.
But separatist negotiator Denis Pushilin said the talks, mediated by European and Russian envoys, had been scrapped and he blamed the Ukrainian government for not sending representatives.
"The foreign ministry of Belarus confirmed today that Kiev will not come. The talks have been cancelled," Pushilin told reporters prior to boarding a flight out of Minsk.
Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Yevgen Perebyynis told AFP by telephone that the government "has not been informed about today`s talks being called off".
Insurgency commanders last week pulled out of all peace talks and announced a new offensive that was followed by a rocket assault on the strategic port of Mariupol in which 31 civilians died.
The fighters later distanced themselves from the bloodshed despite being blamed for it by international monitors on site.
While the leaders bickered over the Minsk talks, fighting in Ukraine`s eastern industrial heartland intensified, with separatists pushing deeper into government-held territory.
Local officials and the Kiev military said 19 civilians and five Ukrainian soldiers died in the latest wave of clashes across the separatist Lugansk and Donetsk regions since Thursday afternoon.
Some of the worst violence was centred around Debaltseve -- a key government-held town of 25,000 people that was built around a railroad connecting the two rebel centres of the Russian-speaking southeast.
Donetsk insurgency commander Alexander Zakharchenko told Russian state television that Ukrainian troops in the town were "surrounded" and unable to receive supplies or send their wounded for treatment in regional hospitals.
"Surrender and you will live," said the rebel. "I promise you that you will all return home."French President Francois Hollande and Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz reiterated calls for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and told Russia to stop supporting separatists.
Western governments and Ukraine accuse Russia of arming and training the rebels, who are deploying extensive sophisticated and heavy weaponry, including tanks and multiple rocket launchers. Russia denies aiding the rebels who claim to get all their weaponry from captured Ukrainian supplies.
The 28-nation EU on Thursday extended through September a first wave of targeted sanctions it had slapped on Moscow and Crimean leaders in the wake of Russia`s March seizure of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine.
EU foreign ministers also agreed to start work on further "appropriate action" if Moscow and the rebels continued breaching the original terms of the collapsed September truce.
Russia accuses the West of manipulating the Ukrainian government, which came to power in elections after the ouster in huge street demonstrations last year of a Kremlin-backed leader.
The Kiev government has angered Moscow by seeking closer ties with the EU and future membership in NATO, which would bring the Western military alliance into a huge section of the former Soviet Union.
Moscow on Friday accused Brussels of adopting a "one-side reading" of the conflict and warned that further sanctions would only backfire.
"It is time for the European Union to really think about the lack of prospects for the sanctions standoff, which only harms the people and the economies of our countries," the Russian foreign ministry said.