Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have intensified shelling of government forces on all front lines and appear to be amassing forces for new offensives, Ukraine's military said on Saturday, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande met with Russia’s Vladimir Putin to draw up a plan to end the fighting.
Five Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 26 wounded in fighting in the past 24 hours, said government spokesman Volodymyr Polyovy.
Separatist gains against Kiev forces, particularly a rebel advance on Debaltseve to the northeast of the regional center of Donetsk, have given impetus to a Franco-German initiative to try and strike an 11th hour deal with Russia to end the crisis.
Hollande told an international security conference in Munich on Saturday that the Franco-German plan was "one of the last chances" to stop the 10-month-old conflict. Merkel, for her part, said there was no guarantee that the peace initiative would work, but spoke against supplying arms to the Ukrainian government to defend themselves against separatists whom Kiev says are supported by Russian arms and troops — a claim Moscow denies.
"I think that the progress Ukraine needs won't be achieved with even more weapons. I am very, very doubtful," said Merkel, adding that "there are a lot of weapons in the region" already.
Her opposition to sending arms followed statements by NATO's top military commander, who said that Western powers should not rule out sending military equipment to help the Ukrainian army. President Barack Obama is also reportedly weighing the need to send arms to Ukrainian forces.
But several European defense ministers have voiced opposition to sending weapons, fearing it could fuel the conflict.
"More weapons in this area will not bring us closer to a solution, and will not end the suffering of the population," German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters on Thursday.
More than 5,000 civilians, Ukrainian soldiers and pro-separatist fighters have been killed since a separatist rebellion erupted in Ukraine's eastern territories in April.
A peace deal was struck last September in Minsk, Belarus, but the agreed ceasefire was almost immediately violated and attempts to revive it have failed.
Also speaking at the Munich conference, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a fresh peace plan based on the Minsk accords signed by Kiev was being worked on by Moscow, Berlin and Paris, which he believed could bring an end to the conflict.
A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said that more than four hours of talks on Friday with Merkel and Hollande saw the leaders agree on the drafting of a blueprint that would also include proposals from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Poroshenko on Saturday said the crisis in his country would remain unresolved unless it received political, economic and military support from it allies.
In an emotional plea at the conference in Munich, Poroshenko held up the red passports of Russian soldiers he said had been found on Ukrainian territory, calling them the "best evidence" for the presence of foreign troops in his country.
"The Ukrainian question will remain unsolved as long as ... the people and politicians in Europe and the whole world don't provide solid practical support for Ukrainians' independence — politically, economically but also militarily," Poroshenko said.
Artillery and mortar fire on populated areas of the east have taken a huge toll on civilian lives. The present focus on the battlefield is the town of Debaltseve, a vital rail and road junction that lies in a pocket between the two main separatist-controlled regions.
Ukrainian government forces express confidence they have enough firepower to hold the town even though the rebels have steadily encroached in surrounding towns and villages.
Another source of concern for the Ukrainians is Mariupol, a southeastern city on the coast of the Sea of Azov, which lies between rebel-controlled areas and the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Russia last March.
Mariupol's vulnerability was exposed last month when 30 civilians were killed there in intense rocket attacks from rebel-controlled areas.
"The situation remains tense,” military spokesman Polyovy said on Saturday. “The adversary is carrying out attacks across all the separation lines."
Al Jazeera and wire services