KIEV: Fighting raged in Ukraine’s east Wednesday when separatists tried to break through the lines of government forces near the border with Russia and a tentative step toward agreeing conditions for a cease-fire failed.
Eleven more Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the space of 24 hours while hundreds of bodies of rebels were found in shallow graves in a former separatist stronghold, the army said.
Fighting has escalated sharply since Friday with the downing of a Ukrainian military transport plane and the deaths of civilians in air and artillery attacks on residential areas on both sides of the border, which Russia and Ukraine have blamed on each other.
Accusations of direct Russian involvement in the three-and-a-half month conflict, in which hundreds have died, is being pushed hard by Ukraine to persuade the United States and its European allies to impose tougher sanctions on Russia.
In telephone conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, late Tuesday, President Petro Poroshenko again set out evidence of fighters crossing into Ukraine from Russia with heavy military equipment, his website said.
Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk levelled harsh criticism at Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Everything which is happening in Ukraine has been planned by Russia since 2004. Putin has a clear plan and that is to destroy Ukraine and establish his influence over post-Soviet space.”
Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s defense and security council, told journalists that separatists had kept up attacks overnight on government positions along the border.
Government troops had been ambushed by separatists at Izvarino on the border and there had been early morning clashes near the border settlement of Stepanivka when separatists tried to break out of encirclement by the army.
“There was tank and mortar fire and from rockets on positions of the [Ukrainian] ‘anti-terrorist operation,’” Lysenko said. The number of casualties was being established.
Lysenko renewed charges that Russia was building up its forces near the border. But he said, after being temporarily grounded Tuesday after the downing of an An-26 transporter, Ukrainian warplanes had been given the go-ahead to resume flights over the east.
The new casualty figures would appear to bring to nearly 270 the number of Ukrainian servicemen killed since the government launched an “anti-terrorist” operation in April to crush the rebels. Hundreds of civilians and rebels have also been killed.
Lysenko said that in Slovyansk, a former rebel stronghold retaken by government forces, “hundreds of bodies of ... [rebel] fighters” had been found.
A “contact group” of officials from Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said it tried Tuesday to re-activate peace talks – but a planned video link-up with separatists never materialized.