Ukraine rebel leader: We are open to a cease-fire

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Ukraine rebel leader: We are open to a cease-fire
Ukrainian fighters from the Azov Battalion ride on a truck oat a checkpoint on the outskirts of Mariupol on September 2, 2014. Mariupol, a large city of about 500,000 people, is located about 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the Russian border and about 35 kilometres from Novoazovsk, which has been taken over by pro-Russian rebels. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KHUDOTEPLY (Photo credit should read Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images)
A Ukrainian soldier stands in an armoured personnel carrier (APC) at a checkpoint near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on September 2, 2014. Germany has agreed to accept for the treatment of 20 Ukrainian servicemen wounded in the southeast of the country as pro-Russian rebels allegedly backed with Moscow's manpower and weaponry open a new front in the southeast. Moscow declared NATO a 'threat' to its security on September 2 after the Western military alliance announced plans to reinforce defences in eastern Europe because of Russia's alleged stoking of war in Ukraine. AFP PHOTO/ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A Ukrainian soldier stays near a checkpoint in the Donetsk area, on September 2, 2014. Germany has agreed to accept for the treatment of 20 Ukrainian servicemen wounded in the southeast of the country as pro-Russian rebels allegedly backed with Moscow's manpower and weaponry open a new front in the southeast. AFP PHOTO/ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A Pro-Russian fighter gestures in Troitsko-Khartsyzk, 30 Km east of Donetsk, on August 28, 2014. Mortar bombardments have killed 11 civilians and wounded 22 more in east Ukraine's main rebel bastion of Donetsk over the past 24 hours, local authorities said on August 28. AFP PHOTO/ FRANCISCO LEONG (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images)
A military attache takes pictures while examining Russian-made artillery displayed in Kiev on August 29, 2014. Russian weapons and artillery, seized by Ukrainian forces from pro-Russian separatists following clashes in the east of the country, were displayed for inspection by foreign military attaches accredited in Ukraine. Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said that the government is seeking to join NATO and is submitting a relevant bill to parliament to end its official 'non-bloc' policy. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Military attaches examine Russian-made military vehicles and weapons displayed in Kiev on August 29, 2014. Russian weapons and artillery, seized by Ukrainian forces from pro-Russian separatists following clashes in the east of the country, were displayed for inspection by foreign military attaches accredited in Ukraine. Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said that the government is seeking to join NATO and is submitting a relevant bill to parliament to end its official 'non-bloc' policy. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
A military attache examines military vehicles displayed in Kiev on August 29, 2014. Russian weapons and artillery, seized by Ukrainian forces from pro-Russian separatists following clashes in the east of the country, were displayed for inspection by foreign military attaches accredited in Ukraine. Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said that the government is seeking to join NATO and is submitting a relevant bill to parliament to end its official 'non-bloc' policy. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
A serviceman postures on the APC of the Ukrainian troops in Donetsk region on August 9, 2014. Fighting with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has left 13 troops dead in the last 24 hours, Ukraine's military said Saturday. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A serviceman prays in a tented chapel of the Ukrainian troops in Donetsk region on August 9, 2014. Fighting with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has left 13 troops dead in the last 24 hours, Ukraine's military said Saturday. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A serviceman sits on a tank gun barrel while a helicopter flies on the position of the Ukrainian troops in Donetsk region on August 9, 2014. Fighting with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has left 13 troops dead in the last 24 hours, Ukraine's military said Saturday. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A serviceman walks near an APC while a helicopter flies on the position of the Ukrainian troops in Donetsk region on August 9, 2014. Fighting with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has left 13 troops dead in the last 24 hours, Ukraine's military said Saturday. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Servicemen are in the WWII Soviet tank IS-3 captured from pro-Russia militants at the position of the Ukrainian troops in Donetsk region on August 9, 2014. Fighting with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has left 13 troops dead in the last 24 hours, Ukraine's military said Saturday. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Servicemen are in the WWII Soviet tank IS-3 captured from pro-Russia militants at the position of the Ukrainian troops in Donetsk region on August 9, 2014. Fighting with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has left 13 troops dead in the last 24 hours, Ukraine's military said Saturday. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Servicemen are in the WWII Soviet tank IS-3 captured from pro-Russia militants at the position of the Ukrainian troops in Donetsk region on August 9, 2014. Fighting with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has left 13 troops dead in the last 24 hours, Ukraine's military said Saturday. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-Russian militants block the way behind Dutch and Australian forensic teams on their way to the crash site of downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on July 28, 2014 in Donetsk. Dutch and Australian forensic investigators turned back on their way to the MH17 crash site on July 28, after 'explosions' in the area, a government spokeswoman in The Hague said. The Ukrainian military earlier said its forces were battling pro-Russian rebels for control of several eastern Ukrainian towns around the crash site of the downed Malaysia Airlines plane. AFP PHOTO/ BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Igor Strelkov, the top military commander of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic', delivers a press conference on July 28, 2014 in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. Ukraine's army on July 28 seized control of part of the vast site where Malaysian airliner MH17 crashed, insurgents said, as the UN announced the downing of the plane could constitute a war crime. After explosions and fighting blocked a new attempt by Dutch and Australian police to access the east Ukraine crash site, Kiev confirmed that its forces were engaged in fierce clashes with rebels nearby. AFP PHOTO/ BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian soldiers stay near a checkpoint in the Donetsk area, on September 2, 2014. Germany has agreed to accept for the treatment of 20 Ukrainian servicemen wounded in the southeast of the country as pro-Russian rebels allegedly backed with Moscow's manpower and weaponry open a new front in the southeast. AFP PHOTO/ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
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By YURAS KARMANAU

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) - Ukraine's rebels are surrounded and ready to agree to a cease-fire to prevent a "humanitarian catastrophe," the insurgents' new leader said Saturday as conditions deteriorated in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, artillery thundering through deserted streets.

There was no immediate government response to the cease-fire statement. Ukrainian troops have made steady advances against the rebels in recent weeks.

"We are prepared to stop firing to bar the spread of the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe in Donbass (eastern Ukraine)," Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the so-called prime minister of the Donetsk separatists, said in a statement on a rebel website.

His motive for offering a cease-fire was not clear but his comments could be aimed at increasing the pressure on Ukraine to allow in a Russian aid mission.

Ukranian Rebel Leader Open To Cease Fire

Russia, which the Ukrainian government in Kiev and Western countries allege is supporting the rebels, has called repeatedly for a humanitarian mission into eastern Ukraine. But Kiev and the West suggest that could be just a pretext to send Russian forces into the region - and say about 20,000 of them have gathered just across the border.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko issued a statement late Saturday saying that Ukraine is prepared to accept humanitarian assistance in eastern Ukraine. But he said the aid must come in without military accompaniment, it must pass through border checkpoints under Ukrainian control and the mission must be international in character.

Poroshenko said he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed German participation in such a mission.

In Washington, the White House said President Barack Obama and Merkel agreed that any Russian intervention in Ukraine was unacceptable and would violate international law.

Artillery reverberated Saturday across Donetsk, home to nearly 1 million people before 300,000 fled the conflict.

"The situation is getting worse with every hour," Donetsk city council spokesman Maxim Rovinsky told The Associated Press.

Ukraine Readies for Possible Russian Invasion

At least one person was killed and 18 wounded in shelling that hit about 30 apartment blocks Saturday in Donetsk, he said, adding that about 2,000 residential buildings had no electricity.

City streets were nearly empty of cars and pedestrians and most stores were closed. Explosions were also heard near Donetsk's airport.

Ukrainian officials have consistently denied that their forces are shelling civilians, but the rebels dismiss that and claim the government is aiming to blame the insurgents for the increasing death and destruction. Ukraine says the rebels have deliberately put rocket launchers in populated areas.

Some say both sides are to blame.

"We're afraid of the Ukrainian army, which is firing on the city, and of the rebels of the Donetsk People's Republic, who are robbing and killing civilians," said Dmitry Andronov, a 47-year-old resident.

Zakharchenko's statement that the city was surrounded came hours after the rebels' top commander said Ukrainian forces had seized a key town, Krasnyi Luch, effectively cutting Donetsk and nearby territory off from the rest of the rebel-held east.

"The Donetsk-Horlivka group of the fighters of Novorossiya is completely surrounded," Igor Girkin said on a rebel social media page.

Novorossiya, or "New Russia," is a term widely used by the rebels for the eastern area that seeks independence from the government in Kiev. Horlivka, where rebels and Ukrainian forces are also fighting, is 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Donetsk.

A spokesman for the Ukrainian military operation, Andriy Lysenko, told reporters Saturday that he could not confirm that Krasnyi Luch was under government control.

Concerns were also rising about a possible humanitarian catastrophe in the rebel's second-largest city of Luhansk, where fighting has been heavier and more prolonged. A map released by the Ukrainian military showed Ukrainian forces near the outskirts of Luhansk on three sides, with an opening to other rebel-held territory only to the south.

Russian news agencies quoted Luhansk authorities as saying Saturday that the city has been without water and electricity for a week and most of its stores were closed.

Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron also spoke by telephone on Saturday about Ukraine.

"Both expressed grave concern about reports that Russian military vehicles have crossed the border into Ukraine and that Russian armed forces are exercising for a 'humanitarian intervention'," said a statement from Cameron's office. Both "are absolutely clear that such a so-called humanitarian mission would be unjustified and illegal."

The deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, Valeriy Chalyi, said Saturday that Russian forces wanted to enter Ukraine under the guise of a humanitarian mission but Ukraine had blocked the move.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the report, saying "there was no attempt by Russian soldiers at penetration," according to Russian news agencies. But he reiterated Russia's call for humanitarian action, saying "this catastrophe now is the No. 1 theme for discussion."

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was working to alleviate the crisis in eastern Ukraine but warned that any Red Cross aid convoy "will be taken in strict adherence to our fundamental working principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in a telephone interview about his communications with the Red Cross about efforts to distribute humanitarian aid, the White House said.

A White House statement said Biden and Poroshenko agreed that if "Russia were serious about improving the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine," it had to immediately stop shelling Ukrainian troops, release Ukrainian hostages being held inside Russia and cease providing weapons to pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine.

In the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, city workers and volunteers removed the last of the barricades that had blocked the city's main street since anti-government protests began in November.

Protesters had erected the barricades to protect a sprawling tent camp on the city's main square. Although the camp's size dwindled sharply after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in February and a new government came to power, a determined core of demonstrators remained.

Yanukovych's ouster precipitated the crisis in Ukraine's east, which was his support base. Fighting began in April, after Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Ukraine's Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula.

___

Peter Leonard in Kiev, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

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