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Ukraine death toll may be far higher than 5,000, UN says

Separatists in restive east of the country say they will press on with offensive and will not seek a cease-fire

The known death toll resulting from the conflict in Ukraine now exceeds 5,000 and may be far higher, the United Nations human rights office said Friday.

Fighting has intensified over the past 10 days with the leader of pro-Russian separatists quoted as saying they would pursue a military offensive in Ukraine's east and not initiate cease-fire talks with the Kiev government.

"The significant escalation of hostilities since January 13 has taken the toll to 5,086 individuals and we fear the real figure may be considerably higher," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing in Geneva.

The toll, based on official data on casualties collected by U.N. human rights monitors since April, includes 262 people killed in fighting between Ukrainian government forces and the rebels in the past nine days, "the most deadly period" since a cease-fire was declared on Sept. 5, he said. The truce did not take hold, with each side accusing the other of numerous violations.

And with an uptick of violence in recent weeks, prospects for peace look grim.

Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in east Ukraine, made clear that rebels were in no mood to compromise after making territorial gains.

"There will be no attempts to speak about a cease-fire on our part," Russia's Interfax news agency quoted him as saying at a meeting with students in Donetsk.

Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov dismissed the remarks.

"They've said before that they want to take [the cities of] Mariupol, Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. This is just another declaration — let them talk," he said.

At least 10,948 people have been wounded in the escalations since April.

The U.N.'s Office for High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was concerned about "the continuing presence of foreign fighters in the east, allegedly including servicemen from the Russian Federation, as well as the presence of heavy and sophisticated weaponry in populated areas under the control of armed groups," Colville said.

Russia denies any direct involvement in the conflict. The diplomatic standoff over the conflict in Ukraine has pushed relations between Russia and the West to their lowest level since the Cold War ended.

Additionally, the U.N. refugee agency said that new Ukrainian government security regulations requiring special passes were hampering efforts to deliver aid to conflict zones in the east and making life harder for the displaced fleeing the fighting. It called for unimpeded access to eastern Ukraine.

"These restrictions on movements within Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east of the country further complicates an already difficult situation for those forcibly displaced and made worse by the intensified fighting we have seen in recent days," the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokeswoman Karin de Gruijl told reporters.

Asked to explain the obstructions, she said, "We have been stopped at checkpoints, sometimes for security reasons, sometimes for reasons that were not entirely clear to us.”

Wire services

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