Ukrainian forces and separatist rebels agreed Thursday night to a brief ceasefire in Debaltseve, a hotly contested, strategic city that separatists have nearly surrounded this week, the Russian news service Itar-Tass reports. The truce is to last until 8 a.m. local time on Friday and is intended to allow for a humanitarian corridor to extricate remaining civilians before what bids to be a fierce battle for the town and its rail hub, which connects two separatist strongholds.
The pro-Russian separatists say one corridor will let the civilians to escape into their territory, which they call the Donetsk People’s Republic. Rebels have “continuously shelled” Debaltseve in recent weeks, according to the Ukrainian military, and government forces have returned fire, catching the unfortunate residents in the crossfire. The city has been without electricity for more than two weeks and food has become scarce. The United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union have all called for a humanitarian ceasefire in recent days.
At least 224 civilians have been killed and 545 wounded across the front through the end of January. Thousands of Kiev government troops moved into the town in January and despite the shelling, continue to hold out. Separatists are now close enough to the city to hit supply lines running northwest to Ukrainian-held territory.
Five Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 29 wounded Wednesday and Thursday, says the government. Vladyslav Seleznyov, a military spokesman, said separatists made two attempts to take Ukrainian positions in Debaltseve overnight, but they were pushed back, according to Reuters.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande traveled to Kiev on Thursday to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and are heading to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in hopes of brokering a lasting truce.
Negotiations also are expected to continue through the weekend in Germany at the Munich Security Conference, where 400 politicians and experts will discuss solutions to the crisis in Ukraine and other threats to world peace, like the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, according to Deutsche Welle, the German radio channel.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also went to Kiev on Thursday. He said the U.S. had not yet decided whether to supply lethal weapons to Ukrainian forces, but that President Barack Obama will make that decision “soon.”