Russia on the spot as fears mount over east Ukraine conflict
Russia hit back Thursday against Western claims that it was sending fresh military hardware into eastern Ukraine which could fuel a return to all-out conflict.
The Kremlin issued a fierce denial after NATO's commander in Europe accused Russia of sending columns of troops and equipment over the border.
Asked at a press conference if Russian soldiers were fighting and dying in Ukraine, Russian Foreign Ministry official spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said: "Short answer -- no.
"There was fresh shelling in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk Thursday afternoon after a quiet morning with only occasional exchanges of fire, an AFP reporter said.
Ukraine said four of its soldiers had been killed in the past 24 hours and 23 wounded.
A senior Ukrainian security official speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity claimed there were now thousands of Russian troops in the country.
"According to our estimations, there are 8,000 Russian soldiers, maybe more, on our territory at the moment," he said.
The skirmishes on the ground played out against a backdrop of rising Western concern over claims that Russia is dispatching reinforcements to the east of the former Soviet state.
Pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine have been fighting Ukrainian forces since April in a war which has claimed more than 4,000 lives and driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
Moscow has repeatedly denied involvement but openly gives political backing to the self-declared separatist statelets in the east.
NATO's commander in Europe, US General Philip Breedlove, said Wednesday that "columns of Russian equipment, primarily Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defence systems and Russian combat troops" were entering Ukraine.
Later, Assistant Secretary-General Jens Anders Toyberg-Frandzen told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that it was "deeply concerned" by a possible return to full-scale fighting.
The US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, also charged that Russia "talks peace but it keeps fueling war" as Washington warned that the West could ramp up punishing sanctions against the Kremlin.
But Lukashevich told reporters in Moscow: "I can tell you unreservedly and officially that there have been and are no troops or troop movements across the border, let alone our troops' presence on Ukrainian territory, in the southeast.
"- Uncertainty as winter approaches -A nominal ceasefire has been in place in eastern Ukraine for two months stopping much frontline fighting although shelling at strategic flashpoints continues.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have reported a number of unmarked military convoys heading towards rebel strongholds in recent days.
The OSCE says its monitors saw a van marked "Cargo 200" -- Russian military code for military personnel killed in action -- crossing from Russia into Ukraine and back again on Tuesday.
Rebel negotiator Denis Pushilin has called for a fresh meeting over the ceasefire of the so-called Contact Group on Ukraine which includes representatives from the separatist side, Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE.
The West is watching anxiously to see how the situation in eastern Ukraine will develop as the former Soviet state's harsh winter kicks in.
Toyberg-Frandzen outlined three scenarios -- a "return to full-scale fighting"; a continuation of the current situation "for months" with low-level battles punctuated by periods of increased hostility; or a "frozen" conflict which could draw out the current situation for decades.
The senior Ukrainian security official predicted that pro-Russian forces may try to take control of the entire regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, of which separatists currently only control a part.
They could then try to create a corridor to Crimea, which Russia annexed in March, he added.
The Ukraine crisis has sent relations between Russia and the West plummeting to their lowest point since the Cold War.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to face fresh pressure over Ukraine at a G20 summit in Brisbane from Saturday.
And Putin's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is set to hold talks on Ukraine with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Tuesday.
- Australia monitors Russian ships -Australia said Thursday it was tracking four Russian navy ships including a "heavily armed" cruiser and destroyer, in international waters off its north coast ahead of the high-level meeting.
There is public anger in Australia over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July, killing 298 people including 38 Australian citizens and residents.
Ukraine, supported by Western nations, accuses Russia of supplying pro-Kremlin separatists with the missile that shot down the airliner but Moscow and the rebels blame Ukrainian forces.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that Russia's naval deployment highlighted its "assertiveness" but was "not unusual" ahead of a major conference.
© 2014 AFP