Ukraine violence eases after Western condemnation of attacks
Ukraine on Tuesday said pro-Russian rebels had sharply reduced their attacks in the wake of Western condemnation of the most deadly violence in the separatist east in more than a month.
A top military spokesman in Kiev reported the death of one soldier and the injury of another in the Russian-speaking provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk.
But the military also noted a "sharp drop-off in the number of provocative attacks on Ukrainian positions."
The insurgents also reported no initial casualties from overnight attacks that have been waged daily since the two sides signed up to a February armistice that only helped contain battles to select hotspots.
The two sides on Monday reported the death of at least 10 soldiers and civilians -- the bloodiest 24-hour span in more than a month, sparking international condemnation and fears of a return to all-out war.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "seriously alarmed" by Monday's death toll while European Commission spokeswoman Catherine Ray said in Brussels: "We really strongly condemn this escalation."
The clashes culminated a restless week in the former Soviet nation that saw the number of rocket and heavy artillery fire exchanges escalate sharply, seemingly without explanation.
The militias have been trying to seize a road linking their de facto capital Donetsk with Mariupol -- a southeastern port held by the government and responsible for exporting much of the industrial region's factory output.
Mariupol also provides a land bridge between eastern rebel territories and the Crimea peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in March 2014.
But Monday's deaths were reported in strikes across the war zone.
The worrying development sparked a new diplomatic flareup between Moscow -- which firmly denies either arming or funding the revolt -- and Western powers who want to prop up Kiev's new pro-European leaders against what they view as Russian aggression.
"There can be no mistake as to who is responsible -- Russia and the separatists are launching these attacks, just as they escalated the conflict last August," US State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
He appeared to be referring to Ukraine's loss of hundreds of soldiers who were surrounded by a far more heavily-armed militia force in the eastern town of Ilovaysk a year ago.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the recent rise of attacks signalled the imminent launch of a Kiev offensive on the separatist-controlled regions.
"We are concerned by the course of events in recent days which very strongly resembles the preparation for more military action," Lavrov said.
Separatist attacks have often dropped off in the wake of Western condemnation of Russia -- which allegedly directs most rebel campaigns -- as it faces the threat of even sterner economic sanctions.
The United Nations believes the conflict -- sparked by the February 2014 toppling of a Moscow-backed leadership -- has killed more than 6,800 people and driven 1.4 million from their homes.
© 2015 AFP