VUHLEHIRSK, Ukraine — Pro-Russian rebels appeared to be in full control Wednesday of one of the towns that has been a principal target of their advance, as they attempt to surround a nearby garrison of Ukrainian forces. The apparent fall of the town of Vuhlehirsk would be a setback for Kiev, which has been trying to defend it and the larger neighboring town of Debaltseve, an important rail hub, from encirclement by advancing rebels. A military spokesman in the capital said Vuhlehirsk was still contested.
But Reuters journalists on the ground were freely able to enter about 60 percent of it and saw no sign of areas controlled by Ukrainian troops. Rebels patrolled casually and were in a boisterous mood, using positions in the town to fire artillery on Debaltseve. Kiev's Western allies are alarmed over the rebel advance in recent weeks, which scuppered a five-month-old ceasefire.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to visit Kiev on Thursday amid talk that Washington might begin to provide weapons to the Ukrainian government for the first time. An attempt to revive peace talks collapsed on Saturday. Kiev and its Western allies accuse Moscow of arming and funding the rebels and backing the latest advance with Russian troops on the ground. Moscow denies any involvement.