Ukraine rebels bolster frontline as shelling rocks stronghold
Armoured convoys headed to bolster rebel positions in east Ukraine Sunday as shelling rocked separatist stronghold Donetsk and fears mounted of a return to full-scale fighting.
Reflecting growing concerns, 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.
"Shelling rumbled on throughout the afternoon on the edge of Donetsk, where government forces regularly exchange heavy fire with insurgent fighters, but was less intense than overnight when mortar fire was heard close to the centre for around two hours, an AFP journalist reported.
It was among the fiercest combat in the city 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 in the direction of the nearby frontline around Donetsk.
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.
In March, Russian soldiers without identification markings took over the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea.
Moscow annexed the peninsula shortly after.
The OSCE reports from the east came as fears mounted of a total breakdown in the two-month truce, with the war having already killed some 4,000 people, according to UN figures.
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 OSCE's statement gives weight to concerns that the stuttering peace process could soon be ditched definitively.
"More than 40 trucks and tankers" were seen driving on a highway on the eastern outskirts of Makiivka, said the OSCE representatives, who are in Ukraine monitoring the ceasefire.
"Of these, 19 were large trucks -- Kamaz type, covered, and without markings or number plates -- each towing a 122mm howitzer and containing personnel in dark green uniforms without insignia.
Fifteen were Kraz troop carriers," the report said.
Separately, the OSCE monitors said they had seen "a convoy of nine tanks moving west, also unmarked" just southwest of Donetsk.
The OSCE said all these forces were on territory controlled by the separatists' self-declared Donetsk People's Republic.
EU foreign policy chief Mogherini expressed deep concern over the reported reinforcements.
"The most recent reports by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine about convoys in separatist held areas with substantial amounts of heavy weapons, tanks and troops without insignia moving westwards represent a very worrying development," said Mogherini in a statement.
She also called on all sides to show "restraint" and said Russia should work to find a peaceful solution while respecting Ukraine's sovereignty.
- New Cold War? -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