Fighting intensified Tuesday in eastern Ukraine as pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian troops sought to extend their gains ahead of crucial peace talks, and the government accused the separatists of shelling a town far behind the front lines, killing 12 people and wounding scores.
Germany, which has joined with France to try to broker a peace deal, urged Russia and Ukraine to compromise and called on the warring parties to refrain from hostilities that could derail a four-way summit Wednesday in Minsk, Belarus.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the talks were “one of the last” opportunities for ending the fighting that has killed more than 5,300 people since April.
Poroshenko told parliament in Kiev that the separatists launched a rocket strike Tuesday on the town of Kramatorsk, more than 30 miles from the nearest front line, hitting a regional military command center with the first salvo and then striking a nearby residential area.
Rebels denied any involvement in the attack and said it was a “provocation” by the Ukrainian authorities. Kramatorsk was the site of major fighting until July, when pro-Russian separatists retreated.
The mounting death toll comes amid renewed efforts to work out a peaceful solution in a conflict that has displaced at least 1 million people and left the Ukrainian economy in ruins. Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of fueling the rebellion with troops and weapons. Moscow denies the charge, but the sheer number of sophisticated heavy weapons in the rebel hands belies the denial.
Ahead of Wednesday’s talks, President Barack Obama spoke by phone with both Putin and Poroshenko.
“…if Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine, including by sending troops, weapons, and financing to support the separatists, the costs for Russia will rise,” the White House said in a statement.
Polishenko said Tuesday, “Tomorrow’s meeting in Minsk offers one of the last chances to declare an unconditional cease-fire and pull back heavy artillery.”