Mounting fears of full-scale conflict in Ukraine
Armoured convoys headed to bolster rebel positions in east Ukraine Sunday as shelling rocked separatist stronghold Donetsk, prompting US-led concerns of a return to full-scale fighting.
The White House expressed grave concern at reports of Russian military reinforcements in eastern Ukraine, warning that any separatist efforts to seize more territory would be a "blatant violation" of a ceasefire agreement.
Ukraine and the West blame Russian-backed separatist fighters using surface-to-air missiles for the catastrophe, while Moscow has pointed the finger at Kiev's forces, in an incident that galvanised international shock over the chaos.
"We are very concerned by intensified fighting in eastern Ukraine, as well as numerous reports.
that Russian backed and supplied separatists are moving large convoys of heavy weapons and tanks to the front lines of the conflict," US National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement.
Reflecting the growing unease, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said reports of military reinforcements in Ukraine's separatist areas were a "very worrying development" and called on Russia to prevent further movement of "troops, weapons and equipment".
She also called on all sides to show "restraint" and said Russia should work to find a peaceful solution while respecting Ukraine's sovereignty.
On Monday a special commemoration will be held in the Netherlands for the victims of one of the worst tragedies of the conflict; the downing of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 in July which killed all 298 people aboard, including 193 Dutch citizens.
The early hours of Sunday morning in Donetsk saw some of the fiercest combat since the September 5 signing of a frequently-violated ceasefire that halted all-out confrontations across most of the conflict zone, but failed to end constant bombardments at strategic hotspots.
An AFP crew saw a convoy of 20 military vehicles and 14 howitzer cannons without number plates or markings driving through the rebel town of Makiivka on Sunday, in the direction of the nearby frontline around Donetsk.
- Fears of total breakdown -Meanwhile the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) voiced concern Saturday after its monitors witnessed unmarked columns of tanks and troop carriers moving through east Ukraine in territory held by pro-Russia separatists.
The sightings of armoured columns came after Ukraine's military said Friday a large convoy of tanks and other heavy weapons entered the country from Russia across a section of border that has fallen under the control of rebel fighters.
Russia denies being involved in the fighting in the east.
However, it openly gives the rebels political and humanitarian backing and it is not clear how the insurgents could themselves have access to so much sophisticated and well-maintained weaponry.
The OSCE reports from the east fuelled the fears of a total breakdown in the two-month truce, with the war having already killed some 4,000 people, according to UN figures.
In March, Russian soldiers without identification markings took over the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea.
Moscow annexed the peninsula shortly after.
Ukraine's military said Sunday that three servicemen were killed and thirteen injured as shelling hit government positions around the region.
Two Ukrainian policemen and one civilian were also killed in the fighting, the army said.
Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko risked heavy fire Sunday morning as he toured the insurgents' forward positions around the ruins of the Donetsk airport, where Ukrainian troops are battling fiercely to maintain a toe-hold, Russian outlet LifeNews reported.
"They continue to bombard our airport, nothing is changing," Zakharchenko was filmed as saying.
- Tanks, cannons, tankers -Unidentified military columns have been seen increasingly by foreign journalists in the east in recent days, and Ukraine's military on Sunday repeated allegations that Russia is covertly deploying troops to bolster rebels ahead of a fresh offensive.
The conflict has sent relations between Western backers of Ukraine and Russia to their lowest level in decades.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is gearing up for a fraught week of diplomacy with visits to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing and Group of 20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia, where he looks likely to face a hostile reception from Western leaders.
The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, said at an event Saturday marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall that the world "is on the brink of a new Cold War" sparked by Ukraine.
Russia's economy is suffering from European Union and US sanctions imposed in response to Moscow's support for the separatists.
With Russia welcoming last week's rebel elections, which were billed as boosting the separatists' claim to independence, the sanctions look set to remain in place -- and possibly be reinforced.
© 2014 AFP