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State Dept. Says ‘Land Grab’ in Debaltseve Must Be Accounted For

A top U.S. diplomat accused pro-Russian rebels of committing a “land grab” in eastern Ukraine and vowed to impose additional sanctions against Moscow if violations of last week’s ceasefire agreement continue. The remarks from Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken follow the rebel capture of the strategic town of Debaltseve last week after the fighters ...

A Ukrainian army tank rides through a checkpoint near Horlivka, in the region of Donetsk, on February 23, 2015. Pro-Russian forces massing near Ukraine's port city of Mariupol are continuing to attack government troop positions, Kiev said on Monday, fuelling concerns for the fate of an internationally brokered ceasefire. Continued hostilities there and elsewhere meant a pull-back of heavy weapons could not go ahead as agreed, Ukrainian officials said. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV        (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A Ukrainian army tank rides through a checkpoint near Horlivka, in the region of Donetsk, on February 23, 2015. Pro-Russian forces massing near Ukraine's port city of Mariupol are continuing to attack government troop positions, Kiev said on Monday, fuelling concerns for the fate of an internationally brokered ceasefire. Continued hostilities there and elsewhere meant a pull-back of heavy weapons could not go ahead as agreed, Ukrainian officials said. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A Ukrainian army tank rides through a checkpoint near Horlivka, in the region of Donetsk, on February 23, 2015. Pro-Russian forces massing near Ukraine's port city of Mariupol are continuing to attack government troop positions, Kiev said on Monday, fuelling concerns for the fate of an internationally brokered ceasefire. Continued hostilities there and elsewhere meant a pull-back of heavy weapons could not go ahead as agreed, Ukrainian officials said. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)

A top U.S. diplomat accused pro-Russian rebels of committing a “land grab” in eastern Ukraine and vowed to impose additional sanctions against Moscow if violations of last week’s ceasefire agreement continue.

The remarks from Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken follow the rebel capture of the strategic town of Debaltseve last week after the fighters -- accused by the U.S. of receiving weapons and money from Russia -- ignored a European-brokered ceasefire that was supposed to take effect on Sunday, February 15.

“Look, Debaltseve was a land grab,” Blinken told a panel hosted by the Aspen Institute on Monday. “The separatists grabbed what they could … aided by Russia. And in my judgment that needs to be accounted for.”

A top U.S. diplomat accused pro-Russian rebels of committing a “land grab” in eastern Ukraine and vowed to impose additional sanctions against Moscow if violations of last week’s ceasefire agreement continue.

The remarks from Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken follow the rebel capture of the strategic town of Debaltseve last week after the fighters — accused by the U.S. of receiving weapons and money from Russia — ignored a European-brokered ceasefire that was supposed to take effect on Sunday, February 15.

“Look, Debaltseve was a land grab,” Blinken told a panel hosted by the Aspen Institute on Monday. “The separatists grabbed what they could … aided by Russia. And in my judgment that needs to be accounted for.”

Blinken, the president’s former deputy national security adviser, said Washington was working “very closely” with European allies on ramping up economic pressure, and noted the possibility of sanctions targeted at sensitive parts of Russia’s energy sector as a next step.

“The ceasefire needs to be fully implemented,” he said. “Absent those initial steps being taken, we’re going to have to deepen and extend the pressure on Russia.”

At least for the moment, there are few signs that Moscow is willing to back down. The two main tenants of the peace deal brokered by France and Germany in Minsk — a ceasefire and the removal of heavy weaponry by both sides — appeared to be a distant reality as violence continued to rage in a conflict that has killed more than 5,600 people.

On Monday, the Ukrainian military said it could not pull its heavy weapons from the front lines so long as its forces were taking fire from pro-Russian rebels. “Given that the positions of Ukrainian servicemen continue to be shelled, there cannot yet be any talk of pulling back weapons,” military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said.

Over the weekend, there was some hope that fighting might subside after the two sides exchanged some 200 prisoners on Saturday. But Ukraine said on Monday that two of its troops were killed and 10 wounded during fighting in the last 24 hours.

During a meeting in London with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry said Russian support was enabling the ongoing rebel offensive, a charge Moscow denies. “We know to a certainty what Russia has been providing to the separatists,” he said. “We’re not going to sit there and be part of this kind of extraordinarily craven behavior at the expense of the sovereignty and integrity of a nation.”

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blasted the West for imposing its ideology on the rest of the world, including in Ukraine. “For those not wishing to play ball, there are various methods, including regime change, including the open support for the unconstitutional state coup in Ukraine a year ago,” he said, without calling out any countries specifically.

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