Kiev says tanks roll in from Russia, five soldiers die
Ukraine said Friday that dozens of tanks and truckloads of soldiers had crossed from Russia into Kremlin-backed rebel territory, as five servicemen were killed in the latest fighting to tear apart a nominal ceasefire.
The allegations that Moscow is stepping up reinforcements for the insurgents stoked fears that both sides could slide into a return to all-out fighting.
A column of 32 tanks, 16 howitzer cannons and 30 trucks carrying troops and equipment crossed the border into the separatist-held Lugansk region Thursday, Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said, adding that another convoy including three mobile radar stations had also entered the same area.
NATO said it had not verified the claims of the latest incursion but stated it had observed "a recent increase in Russian troops and equipment along the eastern border of Ukraine".
"If this crossing into Ukraine is confirmed it would be further evidence of Russia's aggression and direct involvement in destabilising Ukraine," a NATO military officer said.
However, the Russian defence ministry said Friday that a string of Western accusations concerning troop movements around the Ukraine border were "untrue".
Lysenko said five Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 16 injured in the past 24 hours in clashes between government forces and pro-Moscow rebels, underscoring the emptiness of a two-month truce that both sides continue to insist they are respecting.
Fifteen civilians were wounded by shrapnel in the separatist bastion of Donetsk, the mayor's office said, in a night of shelling in two neighbourhoods near the ruins of the airport, where government troops are holding out.
An AFP journalist reported heavy artillery bombardments had resumed in the area around the strategic transport hub late Friday.
- Crumbling peace plan -While the September truce agreement has seen full-scale confrontations halt along most of the frontline, shelling has continued at flashpoints around the industrial east.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a phone call of an escalation in the conflict following "significant departures" from the agreed peace plan, his office said.
The rebels held leadership elections on Sunday, defying Kiev with a move that sought to formalise their control over the separatist-held territory.
In response, Ukraine's border guards announced obligatory passport controls around the rebel-held areas on Thursday, effectively setting up a de facto border despite Kiev's insistence that it has not given up on reclaiming sovereignty.
That move dovetailed with a government decision to sever state subsidies worth some $2.
4 billion (1.
8 billion euros) each year to the guerrilla regions.
In the wake of Sunday's rebel polls, Poroshenko also said separatists had "torpedoed" a government proposal to give them autonomy and he ordered troops to reinforce frontline cities.
- Pressure on ruble -The United States and European Union have already slapped tough sanctions on Moscow and Poland's foreign minister has warned of a new Iron Curtain falling across Europe.
Top EU diplomat Federica Mogherini said Thursday that the 28-nation bloc would review sanctions on Russia in 10 days, with pressure mounting to add to the punitive measures after Moscow endorsed the rebel elections.
Moscow's foreign ministry on Friday appeared keen to pull back slightly by specifying it "respected" -- but had not officially recognised -- the results of the vote, although it was not clear whether this semantic nicety would be enough to ease Western criticism.
The financial isolation over the Ukraine crisis -- along with falling oil prices -- has hammered Russia's flagging economy.
The ruble plunged early on Friday by over three percent to a new record low of over 60 to the euro before recovering to around 57.
As concerns mounted over the volatile currency, Russia's central bank went back on a pledge Wednesday to limit interventions by saying it was now willing to prop up the ruble.
In a rare chance for dialogue, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet his US counterpart John Kerry Saturday ahead of the APEC summit in Beijing next week, Russian news agencies reported.
But in a sign of how far relations have slumped, the Kremlin ruled out an official sit-down between President Vladimir Putin and US leader Barack Obama.
The Kremlin strongman has agreed to an uncomfortable meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has promised to confront Putin over the deaths of Australians onboard the Malaysia Airlines jet shot down over rebel territory in July.
Dutch investigators have recovered more human remains from the crash site, a rebel official said Friday, although it is too early to tell if they are some of the 298 victims from the downed plane or combattants killed in fighting.
© 2014 AFP