KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists blamed each other for an outbreak of fighting in the country’s rebel-held east on Tuesday.
The fighting erupted on the fifth anniversary of the U.N. Security Council’s endorsement of the 2015 Minsk agreements aimed at bringing peace to Ukraine’s volatile east. The U.N.’s most powerful body marked the anniversary later Tuesday.
Ukraine’s military said in a statement that the separatists attempted to advance into the Ukraine-controlled territory but were repelled.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy denounced the attack as a “cynical provocation.”
Separatist authorities in the Luhansk region, however, blamed Ukraine for starting the fighting. They claimed the fighting erupted when a group of Ukrainian soldiers tried to make an incursion into rebel-held territory near the village of Holubovske, but got into a minefield.
The chief of the General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces, Colonel-General Ruslan Khomchak, said one Ukrainian soldier was killed and another five were wounded in combat. He said four separatists were killed and six others were wounded.
The separatists said two Ukrainian troops were killed and three others were wounded and the Ukrainian forces launched an artillery barrage to cover their evacuation.
They said a civilian resident in Holubovske was wounded by the Ukrainian shelling that also damaged civilian infrastructure in the villages of Kirovsk and Donetskiy.
Ambassador Halit Cevik, chief monitor for the Organization for Security and Cooperation’s monitoring mission in Ukraine, told the Security Council that earlier Tuesday the mission recorded “a very serious incident in the western part of the Luhansk region,” with “a spike in the number of cease-fire violations, including over 2,500 explosions.”
He said the mission is further analyzing the information but noted that weapons that were supposed to be withdrawn under the Minsk agreements were used during the incident.
The exchange of gunfire marks the latest spike in hostilities in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed over 14,000 people since 2014.
U.N. political chief Rosemary DiCarlo told the Security Council that the U.N. human rights office recorded 167 civilian casualties —27 killed and 140 injured — in 2019, a 40 percent decrease from 2018.
The 2015 Minsk peace deal brokered by France and Germany helped reduce the scope of fighting, but sporadic clashes have continued and efforts to negotiate a political settlement have stalled.
During a meeting in Paris in December, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany made a deal to exchange prisoners and pledged to ensure a lasting cease-fire in fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists.
They made no progress, however, on key contentious issues — a timeline for local elections in eastern Ukraine and when Ukraine can get back control of its borders in the rebel-held region.
DiCarlo called for international support for the four leaders’ commitment to address the Ukraine conflict “with renewed impetus and sense of urgency.”
Zelenskiy said on Facebook that Tuesday’s outbreak of hostilities was an attempt to derail efforts to end the conflict and said he would call a meeting of his Security Council to discuss the situation.
“Our course for ending the war and our adherence to international agreements remain unchanged, just as our determination to repel any acts of aggression against Ukraine,” he said.
During Tuesday’s council meeting, called by Russia, the deep divisions between Moscow and the West over Ukraine erupted again.
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused Ukraine’s supporters of not implementing the Minsk provisions. Germany, the U.S., U.K., France and others blamed Moscow for not adhering to the agreement and reiterated demands that it return the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, to Ukraine.