21 February 2015
Last updated at 16:45
Ukrainian troops were forced to retreat from the key town of Debaltseve despite the ceasefire
The US and UK are considering deeper sanctions against Russia following the recent events in the eastern Ukraine conflict, US Secretary of State John Kerry has said.
Speaking during a visit to London, Mr Kerry accused Moscow of “craven behaviour” in its support for the rebels, undermining a ceasefire.
But a Kremlin spokesman said sanctions would not help solve Ukraine’s crisis.
The ceasefire, agreed this month in Minsk, has often seemed near collapse.
Each side accuses the other of multiple breaches of the truce in recent hours.
But the rebels announced a prisoner exchange as part of the ceasefire. Between 35 and 39 Ukrainian soldiers and 37 people held by the Ukrainian government are to be freed in the Luhansk region.
Meanwhile an adviser to Ukrainian President Viktor Poroshenko, Yuri Biriukov, said the Ukrainian death toll in last week’s battle for the key town of Debaltseve was possibly 179 with 81 missing – a much higher figure than previously announced.
The rebels took the strategic transport hub in spite of the ceasefire signed on 12 February, arguing the truce did not apply to the flashpoint town, forcing government troops to retreat.
The Ukrainian government, Western leaders and Nato say there is clear evidence that Russia is helping the rebels in eastern Ukraine with heavy weapons and soldiers. Independent experts echo that accusation. Moscow denies it, insisting that any Russians serving with the rebels are “volunteers”.
Nearly 5,700 people have died since the fighting erupted last April and some 1.5 million people have fled their homes, according to the UN.
The Ukrainian authorities are exhibiting weapons and equipment, apparently captured from the rebels, in the capital Kiev
‘Brazen and cynical’
Speaking before talks with UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Mr Kerry said “additional sanctions” were on the agenda.
“Russia has engaged in an absolutely brazen and cynical process over these last days,” he said.
“We’re not going to sit there and be part of this kind of extraordinarily craven behaviour at the expense of the sovereignty and integrity of a nation.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded by urging the US and Europe to support the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
“The obsession to make somebody ‘pay a price’ – as they like saying in Washington – absolutely does not contribute to settling the situation in the southeast of Ukraine,” he told Russia’s Ekho Moskvy radio.
Mr Kerry’s remarks came after a bipartisan group of US senators wrote to him calling for a tightening of sanctions and the provision of defensive weapons to the Ukrainian government.
Mr Kerry described as “unacceptable” the situation around the south-eastern port city of Mariupol, where rebels were accused of shelling government forces and building up equipment and troop numbers.
The Ukrainian government fears that rebels will attempt to capture the city to provide a corridor to Crimea, a Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia last year.
Meanwhile the rebels said Ukrainian forces had overnight shelled their positions in several areas, including parts of the city of Donetsk.
Michael Bociurkiw, the Kiev spokesman for the OSCE which is monitoring the truce, said that there was a “fairly long list of ceasefire violations” but also that there were “pockets of calm where for the first time in a long time we’re able to go in”.
The continued fighting comes as Ukraine marks a year since the downfall of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, following mass protests in central Kiev.
A rally took place in Moscow on Saturday to condemn the ousting, which many Russians regard as a “coup”.
Police estimated that about 35,000 people in total took part.
The BBC’s Sarah Rainsford, at the march, says many people at the march blame America and Europe for engineering regime change in Ukraine.
Speaking on Russian TV, Mr Yanukovych condemned “lawlessness” in Ukraine.
The anti-Yanukovych revolt was triggered by a sudden U-turn that ditched a wide-ranging pact with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia.
Since Mr Yanukovych fled Kiev, the new authorities in Ukraine have issued an arrest warrant for him over the “mass murder of peaceful citizens”.
President Poroshenko accused Russia on Friday of direct involvement in the sniper fire that killed dozens of protesters in Kiev on 18-20 February last year.
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