A senior separatist leader in eastern Ukraine on Friday declared the five-month old truce over and announced an offensive to secure control of the whole Donetsk region.
“There will be no ceasefires anymore,” Alexander Zakharchenko, told students at Donetsk University, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.
Zakharchenko added that his forces will advance to the border of the Donetsk region and that the separatists in neighbouring Luhansk would also attack.
The self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics control less than half of their respective eastern Ukrainian regions.
The separatists, which Ukraine and the West say are backed by Russian forces, scored a major win earlier this week when they took control of Donetsk airport. Tensions rose further after at least eight civilians were killed in the separatist stronghold when rockets exploded at a bus stop.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday blamed Ukraine for the attack, saying that in response to a fresh peace initiative from the Kremlin, Kiev launched a large-scale offensive.
“Artillery and aviation is used indiscriminately in heavily populated areas,” he told a meeting of Russia’s Security Council.
Putin added that “those responsible” should know that the conflict can only be solved by political means. “I hope that reason will prevail in the end,” he said.
The United Nations said Friday that the conflict’s overall death toll has risen to above 5,000. In the past days an average of 29 people were killed per day, making it the most deadly period since the Minsk ceasefire declaration on September 5, said Rupert Colville, the UN human rights office spokesman.
The Donetsk separatists said Friday that 24 of their fighters were killed and 30 injured over the past 24 hours. Ukraine’s National Security Council said in Kiev that three soldiers were killed and 50 injured in the same period.
This surge in violence coincided with German-brokered talks in Berlin on Wednesday, after which Russia and Ukraine said that the sides in the conflict had agreed to withdraw heavy weapons from the front line in accordance with the Minsk peace accords reached in September.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated on Friday that the Minsk agreements need to be fully implemented and demanded an end to the fighting.
“We have to do what is possible diplomatically to achieve progress,” she said after talks with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Florence.
Merkel stressed that the so-called Ukraine contact group should meet again as soon as possible.
However, Zakharchenko, the Donetsk separatist leader, said that he will only participate in such talks if Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko does the same.
Because Kiev refused direct talks with the separatists, former president Leonid Kuchma represented Ukraine in the group, which also includes Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Merkel also said that if part of the problems over Ukraine are solved, there could be trade talks between the EU and the newly-established Eurasian Economic Union.
“I know that we have to talk about it at the European level,” she said.