Ukraine Troops Fight to Avoid Being Surrounded by Rebels

DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine (AP) -
Ukrainian soldiers guard a checkpoint near the town of Debaltseve, Ukraine, Monday. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
Ukrainian soldiers guard a checkpoint near the town of Debaltseve, Ukraine, Monday. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

As Ukrainian troops fought Monday to defend a strategic railway hub, Russian-backed separatists pledged to boost the size of their force and Washington pondered whether to expand its assistance to Ukraine to include lethal aid.

President Barack Obama has so far opposed sending lethal assistance, but an upsurge in fighting in eastern Ukraine has spurred the White House to take a fresh look at supplying Ukraine with such aid, a senior administration official said.

Since the unrest in eastern Ukraine surged anew in early January, the separatists have made notable strides in clawing territory away from the government in Kiev. Their main offensive is now directed at Debaltseve — a government-held railway junction once populated by 25,000 people that lies between the rebel-held cities of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Almost 2,000 residents have fled in the last few days alone.

Meanwhile, the leader of the separatists in Donetsk, Alexander Zakharchenko, said new mobilization plans aim to swell the ranks of rebels to 100,000 fighters.

It’s not clear how many fighters the rebels have now or how many able-bodied men are still available in rebel areas.

Zakharchenko didn’t say where he aimed to find apparently tens of thousands of troops.