Ukraine fighting kills 28 people, throwing doubt on Sunday ceasefire deadline

Updated February 15, 2015 00:18:28

Fighting has raged on in Ukraine, throwing doubts on a ceasefire deal due to take effect over the weekend, with the US saying Russia is still deploying heavy arms and Kiev warning that shelling of civilians has intensified.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said yesterday the continuing bombardment of civilians in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian separatist rebels was already undermining the peace plan reached in Minsk a day before.

At least 28 civilians and soldiers were reported killed in the latest upsurge in fighting.

"Unfortunately after the Minsk agreement, Russia's offensive has significantly increased. We still think that the agreement is in great danger," Mr Poroshenko said during a meeting with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban.

Unfortunately after the Minsk agreement, Russia's offensive has significantly increased. We still think that the agreement is in great danger.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko

"After what we concluded in Minsk, these are not only attacks against civilians but also against the Minsk agreement," he added, referring to the shelling of the town of Artemivsk that killed three people including a seven-year-old.

The ceasefire, due to take effect at 9:00am AEDT on Sunday, will be the first test of the commitment by Kiev and pro-Russian separatists to the freshly-inked peace plan.

But with separatists fighting to conquer more territory ahead of the truce and Kiev forces digging in, there are fears over whether anyone will observe the truce, considered vital to the success of the peace roadmap.

The UN Security Council is expected to meet on Sunday, New York time, for an emergency session to shore up the ceasefire deal, diplomats said.

Fresh fighting with reports of heavy weaponry on the move

The United States said it believed Russia was continuing to deploy heavy weapons ahead of the ceasefire.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US had received reports of heavy weapons being moved into eastern Ukraine from Russia over the past few days, and more apparently on the way.

"This is clearly not in the spirit of this week's agreement," Ms Psaki said.

She said the Russian military had deployed large amounts of artillery and multiple rocket launcher systems and was using them to shell Ukrainian positions.

The fresh fighting 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.

Welcoming the peace plan, the group of industrialised nations called on all sides to refrain from moves that could scuttle the deal.

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

Ukraine's deputy defence minister Petro Mekhed, meanwhile, accused the rebels of wanting to "raise their flag" over railway hub Debaltseve, scene of the most bitter recent fighting, and strategic port Mariupol ahead of the ceasefire.

"Ukraine is expecting an escalation and taking all necessary measures to be able to respond," Mr Mekhed told journalists.

The fragile agreement was seen as the best hope of ending the conflict, which has killed at least 5,480 people and ratcheted East-West tensions to highs not seen since the Cold War, but scepticism remains high after the collapse of a similar previous peace plan.

Kiev and the West accuse Russia of stoking the war in ex-Soviet Ukraine by pouring arms and troops to help the pro-Russian rebels fighting Kiev government troops in Ukraine's industrial east. Moscow denies the charges.

Autonomous separatist areas part of roadmap to peace

Ukraine's military said that fighting remained fiercest around Debaltseve, with rebels firing missiles at the beleaguered railway hub mid-way between the main separatist bastions of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Kiev has accused Russia of deploying another 50 tanks across the border during the talks in Minsk.

Rebel leaders - seen by the West as Kremlin puppets - have said the new deal raises hopes of peace but warned there would be no more talking if it fails.

The new Minsk agreement is broadly similar to an earlier failed deal in September, except the new heavy weapons-free zone will be 50 to 140 kilometres wide, depending on the range of the weapon - double the width of the buffer zone agreed in September.

Kiev will also begin retaking control over the approximately 400-kilometre 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.

AFP

Topics:unrest-conflict-and-war, defence-forces, foreign-affairs, ukraine

First posted February 14, 2015 17:44:52

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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