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SVITLODARSK, Ukraine — Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists rocketed each other with heavy artillery fire Saturday — shelling that extended far beyond any front lines — as the hours ticked down to a cease-fire that was supposed to start at midnight. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared he would consider imposing martial law if the fighting does not abate in the conflict that has killed more than 5,300 people since April.
The fighting centered around Debaltseve, a key government-held railway hub between the rebels' two main cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Shells rained down Saturday afternoon on the government-held town of Artemivsk, 25 miles north of Debaltseve, striking a school, which rapidly burned to the ground. Officials in the key government-held port city of Mariupol, meanwhile, reported an array of artillery attacks hitting areas near the city Saturday morning. Russia has repeatedly denied repeated Western claims that it has sent troops and equipment to the rebels.
Under a peace deal reached Thursday, the warring sides are to cease firing at midnight. But since a previous cease-fire in September failed to take hold and fighting escalated sharply in January, expectations for the new agreement are low. The lack of a clear agreement over a line of division between the opposing forces, around Debaltseve in particular, seemed most likely to spark fresh tensions. At midnight, each side is to pull heavy weaponry back from the front line, creating a zone roughly 30-85 miles wide, depending on the caliber of the weapons. The weapons withdrawals are to begin Monday and be completed in two weeks.
The fighting started in April after armed separatists took control of towns and buildings in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, fearing the new government in Kiev would suppress the heavily ethnic Russian population in eastern Ukraine.