NIKISHINE, Ukraine — Pro-Russian rebels and government forces fought street-to-street in a strategic town in east Ukraine on Tuesday and refused to pull back their heavy guns - all but scuppering hopes that a European-brokered peace deal will end months of conflict.
Both sides had been due to begin withdrawing heavy guns on Tuesday, but Kiev says it cannot do so as long as the rebels show no sign of halting their advance.
Reuters journalists near the snowbound front line said artillery rounds rocked Debaltseve every five seconds and black smoke rose skywards as Grad rockets pounded the town.
"Eighty percent of Debaltseve is already ours," said Eduard Basurin, a rebel leader. "A cleanup of the town is under way.” Kiev's military denied the town, which had a peacetime population of 25,000 but is now a bombed-out wasteland, had fallen but acknowledged losing control of some of it.
Kiev acknowledged that rebels had captured some of its troops defending it. Some Ukrainian soldiers had been captured, it said, but denied rebel reports that up to 300 had surrendered or been taken prisoner.
The Moscow-backed rebels say the ceasefire does not apply to the main battle front at the town of Debaltseve, astride a railway hub, where they have a Ukrainian military garrison surrounded. They have continued an all-out assault.