UNITED NATIONS – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has joined calls for a temporary truce to allow civilians to be evacuated from the frontline town of Debaltseve in east Ukraine.
Ban said he was particularly concerned by the plight of civilians trapped in Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub linking two separatist-held cities.
"The rebel offensive continues and people are dying on a daily basis," he said in a statement released by his spokesman on Wednesday.
He voiced support for a proposal by European OSCE monitors for a temporary truce in Debaltseve, which has been the focus of the fiercest fighting in a week.
Thousands of civilians have fled the beleaguered town over recent days and those remaining behind are trapped in basements without water or electricity.
Ban called on the separatists and Ukrainian forces to "immediately move their military positions away from densely populated civilian areas". The war in east Ukraine has claimed over 5,300 lives and driven over 1 million people from their homes in Europe's worst humanitarian crisis since the Balkan war of the 1990s.
Four people were killed when a hospital in east Ukraine was shelled on Wednesday ahead of a visit to Kiev by US Secretary of State John Kerry that will focus on the possibility of arming Ukrainian forces.
The latest deaths came as international pressure grew for an immediate halt to surging violence that has seen hundreds of civilians killed in recent weeks as separatists pushed into government-held territory.
President Petro Poroshenko said the events of recent days should encourage NATO to "provide more support to Ukraine, including the provision of modern weapons to protect itself and defend itself against the aggressor". "We need a strong army with new weapons, this will help us to defend the civilian population against attacks by terrorists," he told German newspaper Die Welt.
Hours before Kerry was due to arrive in Kiev, US President Barack Obama's nominee for defence secretary said he was likely to support providing Ukraine with weapons.
Ashton Carter, expected to be confirmed soon as Pentagon chief, told a US Senate committee that "we need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves". However, Vice President Joe Biden seemed less hawkish, telling German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung: "We have said since the beginning that there is no military solution to this crisis." Wednesday's violence occurred at a hospital in a western suburb of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, where an AFP journalist saw a body lying next to the crater from a mortar blast that caused extensive damage to the building.
Two more dead civilians were sprawled outside a nearby residential building, and a local resident said another elderly man was killed in his home.
EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini called for an immediate ceasefire to allow civilians to escape the fighting.
"The spiral of ever-increasing violence in eastern Ukraine needs to stop," Mogherini said.
Observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have demanded a "local temporary truce" around the battleground town of Debaltseve for the next three days.
Amnesty International said Debaltseve's population had dropped from 25,000 to 7,000 in just a few days.
Kerry will arrive in Ukraine on Thursday with hopes growing among Kiev's pro-Western leaders that long-standing demands for the US to supply weapons could be met. – AFP