DONETSK, Ukraine: Fierce battles on Ukraine’s porous eastern border left 15 government troops dead and there were fears of a possible Russian invasion Friday, despite NATO’s urging Moscow to withdraw its troops along the frontier.
International tensions also rose as Western countries faced a Russian food embargo, imposed as revenge for sanctions slapped on Moscow over its backing for insurgents in Ukraine.
The renewed violence came after NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned Moscow to “pull back from the brink” and as Western countries warned that Russia could be preparing to send troops across the border in the guise of a humanitarian mission.
The United States warned Russia that any further intervention – including under the pretense of delivering humanitarian aid – would be regarded as “an invasion of Ukraine.”
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power delivered the warning at a Security Council meeting focusing on the human rights situation in Ukraine’s east. It follows recent reports by the West and the Kiev government that accused Moscow of dispatching what NATO estimates as 20,000 troops to the frontier.
Power noted that Russia had proposed creating “humanitarian corridors” to deliver aid to the separatist-controlled areas.
“The humanitarian situation needs addressing, but not by those who have caused it,” she stressed.
Power welcomed the Ukrainian government’s creation of “humanitarian corridors” to get aid into separatist-controlled areas and allow civilians out.
If Moscow wants to send aid, she said, it should be delivered by neutral international aid organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“Therefore any further unilateral intervention by Russia into Ukrainian territory, including one under the guise of providing humanitarian aid, would be completely unacceptable and deeply alarming – and it would be viewed as an invasion of Ukraine,” Power warned.
The U.S. ambassador said Russia also floated the idea again last week of sending Russian peacekeepers to eastern Ukraine.
“A Russian peacekeeper in Ukraine is an oxymoron,” Power said. “At every step in this crisis, Russians have sabotaged peace, not built it, and it is particularly worrisome given Russia’s purported annexation of Crimea ... Peacekeepers are impartial, yet Russia fully supports Russia’s armed separatists in this conflict.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his national security council on Friday to discuss the situation in eastern Ukraine, especially the “massive humanitarian catastrophe” in the region.
Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev vowed that Moscow was trying its best “to de-escalate tensions,” but Kiev said its positions continued to come under fire from Russian territory.
Ukraine’s military said seven soldiers and eight border guards were killed over the past 24 hours as a bloody three-day battle with pro-Russian rebels forced several government units to retreat from the border in the southeast of the war-torn Lugansk region.
An AFP journalist meanwhile heard sporadic shelling in the main insurgent bastion of Donetsk.
The center of the one-million-strong city has become a new battleground in the fighting, coming under sustained shelling for the first time on Thursday, when mortar fire killed at least three civilians and hit a hospital.
But the rebels, believed by the West to be backed by Russia, have not stepped back in the face of a fierce government assault.
The new prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, admitted that the situation was “difficult and tense” but said “the troops’ morale is strong.”
Over 1,300 people have been killed and 285,000 forced to flee their homes over four months of what the Red Cross has designated a civil war in eastern Ukraine.
Local authorities have warned of an impending humanitarian disaster, as some areas have been left without power or water for days, and fuel and food are running short.
Aside from the 15 killed, 79 soldiers were wounded in the east in the past 24 hours, Ukraine’s military said Friday.
The rebels shot down a Ukrainian fighter jet the day before some 40 kilometers east of Donetsk and said they had captured the two pilots.
They also opened fire on a medical evacuation helicopter, injuring the three crew on board and forcing it to make an emergency landing, Kiev said.
Ukraine’s military said Friday that its forces had reclaimed two more villages from the insurgents. They have been seeking to cut off Donetsk from the Russian border, where Moscow has amassed some 20,000 troops, according to NATO.