KIEV: Seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed and seven wounded Tuesday when their armored column was ambushed by pro-Russian separatists near the eastern Ukrainian town of Kramatorsk, the Defense Ministry and state security service said.
It was the biggest single loss of life by the Ukrainian army since soldiers were sent into the mainly Russian-speaking east of the country to break up armed separatist groups who have seized control of towns and public buildings to push their demands for autonomy.
The ministry, in a statement published on its website, said an armored column came under fire as it approached a bridge near a village 20 km from Kramatorsk, one of several hot spots in the region where the army has had only limited success against the separatists.
About 30 rebels, who had taken cover among bushes along a river, attacked with grenade-launchers and automatic weapons, immediately killing two soldiers and wounding three others, it said.
“In all, as a result of the prolonged fighting, six members of the armed forces were killed. Eight soldiers were wounded, one of them seriously,” it said.
The state security service (SBU) said later that the seriously wounded soldier had died while being transported to hospital.
Before the Kramatorsk incident, Defense Minister Mikhailo Koval said a total of nine servicemen had been killed so far in the army’s “anti-terrorist” operation, which has been directed mainly against rebels in the towns of Slaviansk and Mariupol.
The dead included five pilots, Koval said, who apparently died when their helicopters were downed by separatist fire.
Earlier Germany’s foreign minister tried to broker a quick launch of talks between the central government and pro-Russia separatists.
Speaking at Kiev’s main airport, envoy Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Germany supports Ukraine’s efforts to arrange for a dialogue between the central government and its opponents in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions that form the nation’s industrial heartland.
Pro- Russia insurgents have seized government buildings and clashed with government forces in eastern Ukraine in the past month and are holding some journalists and others hostage. Steinmeier voiced hope for a quick release of the hostages, the handover of occupied buildings and stressed the importance of holding Ukraine’s presidential vote as planned on May 25.
The Ukrainian government and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny in the east to derail Ukraine’s presidential vote and possibly grab more land.
Steinmeier’s trip is part of the road map for settling Ukraine’s crisis laid out by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a trans-Atlantic security group.
Russia called Tuesday for a swift implementation of the OSCE plan, saying its demand to end violence means that the central government in Kiev should stop its military operation to recapture buildings in the east, lift its blockade of cities and towns, pull its forces from eastern regions and release all political prisoners.
“We are demanding [they] stop intimidating civilians by using force or threatening to use it,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
It added that it expects separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions to respond in kind if Kiev does all that.
Russia also urged the United States and the European Union to persuade authorities in Kiev to prioritize discussions of giving more powers to Ukraine’s regions ahead of the country’s May 25 presidential vote.
The separatists held a referendum Sunday and claimed that about 90 percent of those who voted in Donetsk and Luhansk backed sovereignty. The two regions declared independence Monday and those in Donetsk even asked to join Russia.
Ukraine’s acting president called the vote a sham and Western governments said it violated international law.
The interim government in Kiev had been hoping the May 25 presidential vote would unify the country behind a new, democratically chosen leadership.
But Ukraine’s crisis could grow even worse if regions start rejecting the presidential election. Dozens of people have been killed since Ukrainian forces began trying to retake some eastern cities.
The OSCE plan calls on all sides to refrain from violence and urges amnesty for those involved in the unrest as well as talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The group has also promised to set up rapid response teams to quickly investigate all acts of violence.