Ukraine rebels claim gains on strategic town

Feb 10, 2015, 2:32 AM EST
A pro-Russian separatist fighter walks on February 9, 2015 near Uglegorsk, 6 kms southwest of Debaltseve. The European Union on February 9 put fresh sanctions against Moscow on hold ahead of a summit to thrash out a Ukraine peace plan aimed at ending 10 months of bloodshed.
AFP/Getty Images

Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine say they have encircled the town of Debaltseve - but Ukraine says its troops are still fighting along a supply road. The strategic town is a key railway junction and has been the focus of intense fighting for more than a week, according to the BBC. Ukrainian officials said at least nine soldiers and seven civilians had died in fighting in the town since Sunday.

Earlier, U.S. President Barack Obama said he had not ruled out supplying arms to Ukraine if diplomacy failed.

Russia had violated "every commitment" in a truce deal, he said, after meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel is opposed to sending weapons to the warring sides. She has been briefing Obama on a new peace deal for the conflict in Ukraine's east. Russia has denied accusations of sending troops and supplies to re-enforce the rebels battling Ukrainian forces.

Secretary of State John Kerry told lawmakers during a private reception in Germany that he personally supports sending lethal aid to the Ukrainian military, even though President Barack Obama has yet to make a decision on whether to say yes to Ukraine’s arms request.

Josh Rogin of Bloomberg View writes Kerry is the latest top U.S. official to favor arming Ukraine’s armed forces directly, as they struggle against heavily armed Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Vice President Joe Biden this weekend came very close to endorsing military aid for Ukraine when he pledged to continue to support Ukraine’s “security” needs.

The top U.S. general in Europe, Philip Breedlove, has for months been advocating internally for greater U.S. support for Ukraine. Defense secretary nominee Ashton Carter testified last week he was inclined toward sending arms to Kiev.