CORRECTED: Eleven killed in heaviest Ukraine clashes in weeks
Ukraine lost eight soldiers Wednesday in a dramatic spike in fighting with pro-Russian gunmen that further imperilled a truce Washington's top European envoy is desperately trying to salvage in Kiev.
Separatist rebels also reported the death of two fighters and a civilian in shelling across the eastern industrial heartland of the former Soviet nation that took a decisive tilt toward the West more than a year ago.
The resulting crisis has created waves of concern across Europe and sparked the most serious confrontation between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.
The Kremlin denies backing the militias in an act of revenge for the February 2014 ouster of a Moscow-backed president that was soon followed by Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the onset of one of Europe’s worst conflicts in decades.
Kiev’s Security Council said early Wednesday that the previous 24 hours had witnessed “some of the most intense bombardments of Ukrainian territory since the signing of the Minsk (truce) agreement” in February.
It said 16 servicemen had also been wounded but failed to specify where the most deadly exchanges of heavy weapons fire had broken out.
“The latest events are proof of yet another attempt by Russia and its puppet to wreck the Minsk agreement and restart active military hostilities,” the Ukrainian Security Council said.
The insurgents said on their main website that the number of Ukrainian attacks had more than doubled to 85 from the 35 recorded Tuesday.
– Fear of ‘full-scale war’ –
The United Nations believes that more than 6,500 people have died and nearly 1.5 million been left homeless by unceasing violence that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had vowed to resolve within days of being elected in May 2014.
But the Western-backed leader has instead seen the insurgents cement control over their holdings in the Russian-border regions of Lugansk and Donetsk.
Kiev and Washington accuse Russia of plotting periodic ground offensives that it backs up with tanks and rocket launchers as well as highly-trained military personnel.
Western reporters have also witnessed unmarked armoured vehicles crossing from Russia into southeastern Ukraine.
Moscow brusquely brushes off such charges as fabrications designed to discredit Russian President Vladimir Putin and distract from alleged Western meddling in Ukraine.
Putin calls Russians fighting in Ukraine patriotic volunteers and off-duty soldiers who are following “the call of their heart”.
Yet the veteran Russian leader and Poroshenko reluctantly put their names on a February truce deal that was personally promoted by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.
Both European leaders are close allies of Kiev who nonetheless value keeping lines of communication with Moscow open at all times.
Merkel and Hollande argue the truce can be saved by Ukraine’s adoption of a constitutional amendment that spells out the eastern guerrilla’s right to control their regions for at least three years.
The EU duo pressed that message on Poroshenko during a conference call on Friday and repeated it to Ukrainian parliament speaker Volodymyr Groysman on Tuesday evening.
US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met Groysman as she kicked off a two-day visit that coincides with parliament’s vote Thursday on the changes to Ukraine’s basic law.
“She kept stressing (to Groysman) the importance of (Thursday’s) vote,” a parliamentary source told AFP after the meeting.
Nuland is also expected to speak Thursday to Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk — a relentless Moscow critic who is seen in Washington as vital to pushing Ukraine along its difficult economic restructuring path.
But many in Kiev share Yatsenyuk’s reluctance to give the rebels formal powers in the midst of battles that flare often and show few signs of approaching a definitive end.
“The world wants to turn this into an ‘internal conflict’ because it is tired of dealing with this extremely unpleasant issue,” deputy parliament speaker Oksana Syroyid wrote on Facebook.
“But is it not obvious that assigning (the east) special status in the constitution would only legitimise the presence of Russian soldiers and mercenaries on Ukrainian land?” Syroyid asked.