Fierce fighting raged today in east Ukraine between government troops and Russia-backed separatists as the warring sides attempted to bolster their positions ahead of a weekend ceasefire deadline. Combat persisted in the first hours after the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France signed a peace deal yesterday in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. The most intense battles were for control of the railway hub of Debaltseve, which the press service for government military operations in the east said was targeted 25 times yesterday by rebel Grad launchers and artillery fire. The deadline for the warring sides to halt hostilities is set to take effect on Sunday, at one minute after midnight. Vladislav Seleznyov, spokesman for the Ukrainian army general staff, said today that eight soldiers were killed and 34 wounded over the previous day.
Regional authorities loyal to Kiev reported four civilian deaths in areas under their control, while rebels said seven people were killed in artillery attacks on the separatist-held cities of Luhansk and Horlivka. Separatist forces recently nearly completely encircled a Ukrainian garrison in Debaltseve, where all but a few thousand civilians have fled to areas away from the front. Only one highway had remained linking the town (which remains a sticking point) to government-held territory, but Ukrainian access to that supply route looks to have been compromised with the apparent capture of the village of Lohvynove, which lies along the road just north of Debaltseve. Once the ceasefire officially begins, each side is to pull heavy weaponry back from the front line, creating a zone roughly 30 miles to 85 miles wide, depending on the caliber of the weapons. The withdrawals are to be completed in two weeks. More on what was agreed to—and what wasn't—here.