KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — The Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday declared the Russia-backed separatist republics in the east to be terrorist organizations, formally eliminating the possibility of holding peace talks with their representatives, as fighting escalated.
The move came after Russian President Vladimir Putin pushed the Ukrainian government to speak directly to the rebels in efforts to end the fighting that has killed about 5,100 people in eastern Ukraine since April, according to U.N. figures.
The Kiev government has long called the separatists in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics "terrorists," but now they can be subject to the counter-terrorism law, said Oleksiy Melnyk, a defense analyst at the Razumkov Centre. That means the government has the right to restrict their movements within Ukraine, block their bank accounts, and most importantly stop them from participating in peace talks, he said.
Parliament is sending a message that Ukraine will negotiate only with Russia and not with its "puppets" in the separatist republics, Melnyk said.
The parliament also declared Russia to be an "aggressor state" and called on the United Nations, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and parliaments in other countries to formally recognize it as such.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of backing the rebels with troops and weapons. Russia denies that, but Western military officials say the sheer number of heavy weapons under rebel control belies that claim.
A lull in fighting in December raised hopes for a peaceful settlement of the conflict, but diplomatic efforts stalled. In recent weeks, the separatist forces have launched a series of new offensives to extend the territory under their control in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions along the Russian border.
Some of the fiercest fighting has been around the town of Debaltseve, a road and railway hub northeast of the main rebel-held city of Donetsk. Armed forces spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said the rebel forces were attacking from two sides in an attempt to surround the Ukrainian troops.
The fighting has left nine servicemen dead and 29 wounded over the past day, Seleznyov said, adding that artillery and mortar fire was hitting residential areas and there were reports of civilian casualties.
Fighting also has raged on the outskirts of Donetsk.
The remaining highway into Donetsk was closed to traffic for the second day running Tuesday following a blast at a Ukrainian military checkpoint that left at least two soldiers dead.
Dozens of vehicles, including long-distance buses taking Donetsk residents home and trucks carrying goods for businesses in the city, were stranded along the road into Donetsk as drivers waited for the way to be reopened.
Bus passengers, some with small children, said Tuesday they battled for sleep as temperatures outside plummeted below freezing. A few hours after morning broke, a crowd angrily confronted soldiers barring the road, but were firmly told no passage would be permitted, even for those willing to make the trip on foot.
Shortly after lunchtime, shells fell in fields nearby, prompting many motorists to flee to safer locations in the nearby town of Kurakhove, which is under government control.
Associated Press writer Peter Leonard in Kurakhove, Ukraine, contributed to this report.