Kiev promises 'restraint' as army nears rebels in Donetsk
Rebel strongholds in eastern Ukraine braced for more fighting on Thursday as Western leaders piled pressure on Kiev to strike a truce with pro-Russian separatists.
French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a telephone call urged the Western-backed President Petro Poroshenko to move toward a political solution and said he promised to exercise "restraint" in the continuing drive to establish control in eastern Ukraine.
Poroshenko said however that the rebels were still receiving weapons from Russian territory and lamented a "lack of progress" in even agreeing the next round of talks with Moscow.
In Lugansk -- one of two regional capitals still held by the insurgents -- the streets were deserted and an AFP team heard regular artillery fire to the north of the city with shooting seeming to be focused around the rebels' military headquarters.
The Ukrainian defence ministry said that troops had to repel a rebel attack on the Lugansk airport.
"Let them bomb us, let them kill us," said a distraught local resident who gave her name as Olga. "We have nowhere to go. Where could we go?" asked her husband Yevgeny.
The couple said they were trying to get their young son out of town as he was too scared to sleep at night.
Three people were killed in the city and five injured in the past 24 hours, local authorities said.
Another three servicemen were killed and four injured in clashes across east Ukraine in the same period, Kiev's National Security and Defence Council said Wednesday.
In Slavyansk, the flashpoint town that was left by the rebels at the weekend, shell-shocked residents said they had hopes that Kiev's promises to rebuild it from the rubble were not just words.
"If (Poroshenko) wants to be the president of the whole country, I think they will rebuild it," 62-year-old pensioner Nina said after meeting the Ukrainian leader Tuesday evening on his lightning visit to the ravaged Slavyansk where basic supplies were now distributed to queues of people.
- Diplomatic tug-of-war -
The three-way call between Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko lasted 40 minutes, and Paris said it resulted in assurances by the Ukrainian leader to "exercise necessary restraint... to spare civilians" as Kiev is faced with the rebels now housed in the much larger city of Donetsk.
But Poroshenko also said that the situation was aggravated by Russia, as militants continued to receive weapons from across the border, and said there was "lack of progress from Russia" in de-escalating the crisis.
He said air force officer Nadiya Savchenko, who was captured by militants in eastern Ukraine, was now in a jail in the central Russian city of Voronezh, calling it "unacceptable".
Russia said Wednesday that Savchenko, known as "GI Jane" in her home country, had been arrested and charged with accessory to murder over the killing of Russian state television journalists in June, and that she crossed the border herself without documents, pretending to be a refugee.
The Kremlin has been unusually restrained since the string of military advances by Kiev with analysts saying President Vladimir Putin could be distancing himself from the rebels despite calls from hawks to send troops across the border.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated calls from Moscow for Ukraine to sit down with the rebel leaders without "conditions".
"They (the rebels) are not ready to fulfil Kiev's ultimatums to capitulate and lay down their arms before negotiations begin," Lavrov said at a press conference with Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, who later met with Putin.
Washington meanwhile said that tougher economic sanctions, which could be catastrophic for the Russian economy, were imminent unless Moscow demonstrates a clean break from separatists.
"We are ready to impose more costs -- including targeted, sector-specific sanctions -- very soon if Russia does not decisively change course and break its ties with separatists," Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The United States views Ukraine's territorial integrity as vital to European security and important to halting Putin's seeming ambition to resurrect a tsarist or post-Soviet empire.
The EU is set to add 11 new names to its list of 61 Russians and pro-Russians in Ukraine already targeted by sanctions, EU officials said after a meeting of ambassadors from the 28-member bloc.
A "preliminary agreement" reached by the envoys is to be made official within the next few days.
-'20 km from Donetsk'-
Ukraine's military says it controls all routes in and out of Donetsk and Lugansk and defence council spokesman Andriy Lysenko warned a plan was in place that would give the rebels an "unpleasant surprise".
"We are already 20 km from Donetsk," Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said Wednesday. "We will chase them until they find themselves in the other Donetsk," referring to a small Russian border town.
Following the retreat rebel military chief Igor Strelkov -- whom Kiev accuses of being a Russian intelligence officer -- said the insurgents were working to boost their weak defences around Donetsk and bolster their numbers.
On Wednesday Strelkov said in an interview on a separatist TV channel that he needed at least 8,000 more men to hold Donetsk, though without saying how many fighters were in his regrouped army.
© 2014 AFP