Ukraine: Rebels fighting for more territory ahead of ceasefire, Kiev military says

Posted February 15, 2015 00:14:50

The Ukrainian military says there has been no let-up in a fierce pro-Russian rebel offensive to capture more territory before a ceasefire comes into force later today.

The truce envisages the creation of a neutral "buffer zone" and withdrawal of the heavy weapons responsible for many of the 5,000 casualties in the conflict that broke out almost a year ago.

But there are fears over whether anyone will observe the deal, which takes effect at midnight (local time, 9:00am AEDT) and is considered vital to the success of a peace roadmap.

"Ahead of midnight, rebels are trying to complete tactically important plans to enlarge the territory under their control, primarily in the direction of Debaltseve," spokesman Andriy Lysenko said at a daily televised briefing in Kiev.

Debaltseve, a strategic transport hub north-east of the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk, has been the focus of some of the fiercest fighting in recent weeks.

Rebels have been battling to encircle government forces in the town but Kiev denies claims that thousands of its troops have been surrounded.

The local police chief said the fighting was levelling the town.

"The rebels are destroying the town of Debaltseve," Vyacheslav Abroskin, who is pro-Kiev, said on Facebook.

"There are non-stop artillery bombardments of residential areas and buildings. The town is in flames."

Mr Abroskin said that Grad missiles had hit the town's police headquarters.

Mr Lysenko said separatists were receiving support from fighters and military equipment crossing the border from Russia into Ukraine.

Moscow denies supplying the rebels with arms and troops although Western officials cite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Mr Lysenko added that seven Ukrainian service personnel have been killed and 23 wounded in fighting in the past 24 hours.

The fresh clashes came after rebels and Kiev agreed to the wide-ranging plan on Thursday following marathon talks in Minsk between the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany.

German chancellor Angela Merkel has warned Russia the EU, which has already slapped Moscow with sanctions over the crisis, is not ruling out further measures if the truce fails.

The G7 nations - Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States - also voiced concern about the violence and the build-up of weapons in eastern Ukraine.

The G7 warned it was ready to "intensify the costs" for anyone who broke the terms of the agreement.

The new Minsk agreement is broadly similar to an earlier failed deal in September.

The rebels have advanced far past the line of an earlier ceasefire deal, agreed in September, and the new accord appears to envisage them pulling their guns back around 75 kilometres, to take them back behind it, while Ukrainian guns would move 25 km back.

Kiev will also begin retaking control over the approximately 400-km stretch of Russia's border with rebel-held Ukraine, but only after local elections are held.

The border is entirely under Russian and pro-Russian rebel control and is used, according to Kiev, as a conduit for separatist supplies.

Separatist-held territories will be granted a degree of autonomy to be established through talks.

Rebel leaders have said the new deal raised hopes of peace but warned there would be no more talking if it fails.

The UN Security Council is expected to meet on Sunday (US time) for an emergency session to shore up the ceasefire deal.

AFP/Reuters

Topics:unrest-conflict-and-war, world-politics, ukraine, russian-federation

ยง

Updated February 15, 2015 00:15:58

The Prime Minister says he replaced Philip Ruddock as chief government whip to allow a "deeper engagement" with his backbench, but the move has rekindled discontent in Coalition ranks.

Tony Abbott made the shock announcement on Friday that he was dumping the veteran MP from the key position in the aftermath of this week's failed attempt to spill the leadership.

On Saturday, Mr Abbott was asked by reporters in Sydney if the move was an act of retribution.

"No, not at all," he replied.

"Philip Ruddock is a friend, Philip Ruddock is a colleague and Philip Ruddock was a supporter.

"But what I am determined to do is have a deeper and stronger engagement with the backbench and that means it was very important to renew and refresh the whips team."

Some of Mr Abbott's supporters believe Mr Ruddock did not do enough to publicly rally support for the Prime Minister and should have done a better job of picking up on backbench disquiet in the weeks leading up to the failed attempt to spill the leadership.

But some MPs who wanted a spill are bewildered and confused by Mr Ruddock's sacking - one saying "the night of the long knives has begun".

Others described it as "another captain's call" that had gone down badly within the party.

Queensland backbencher Andrew Laming has gone public with his criticism, describing it as "scapegoating of Godzilla proportions".

"We really needed a week of healing, not wounding, and I think it really has set us back a fair bit particularly because Philip Ruddock was such a respected character," Mr Laming told the ABC.

Mr Laming said he spoke to Mr Abbott on Friday and told him what he thought.

"Regardless of the reasons, regardless of what you write in a press release, the perception when acting in this way in this week will be that it was one of recrimination," Mr Laming said.

But Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Mr Laming had "ulterior motives" given he supported the spill motion.

Mr Frydenberg rejected suggestions the Prime Minister's decision was retribution and said he spoke to Mr Ruddock on Saturday morning.

"He understands that this is a decision for the leader to take," Mr Frydenberg told Sky News.

"I think this is a decision that is just within the normal course of what happens within government."

Mr Ruddock is not commenting about the decision, except to say the position of chief whip is the gift of the Prime Minister.

Mr Ruddock, who is known as the "Father of the House" for being the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, will be replaced by Queensland MP Scott Buchholz.

Tasmanian MP Andrew Nikolic, a prominent supporter of the Prime Minister, will also be promoted to a whip position.

He said he did not see it as a reward for publicly urging his colleagues against a spill.

"The reason I did that was not for any reward, but to say to my colleagues that the last thing we should be doing is demonstrating the sort of disunity that the Australian people comprehensively rejected," Mr Nikolic said.

I am determined to ... have a deeper and stronger engagement with the backbench, and that means it was very important to renew and refresh the whip's team.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott

Mr Frydenberg has welcomed the appointments.

"In Scott Buchholz we have a very good man who will be our new whip, and Andrew Nikolic as a deputy who's also very experienced in rounding up the troops if you like," Mr Frydenberg said.

Mr Abbott earlier paid tribute to Mr Ruddock in a statement confirming the changes Friday afternoon.

"I acknowledge and thank the Hon Philip Ruddock MP for his extraordinary contribution to our country, this Government and the Liberal Party," Mr Abbott wrote.

"As Father of the House, Philip has given over four decades of service to the Australian Parliament and the Australian people.

"He was a senior minister throughout the life of the Howard government and was shadow cabinet secretary in opposition.

"Later this year he will become the second longest-serving parliamentarian in our history."

The move had been under discussion for more than a day.

The two men met after Parliament rose on Thursday.

Topics:liberals, liberal-national-party-queensland, political-parties, government-and-politics, federal-government, federal-parliament, abbott-tony, australia

First posted February 14, 2015 10:56:08