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Ukraine shakes up beleaguered top brass amid clashes

Ukraine shook up its beleaguered army’s top brass on Thursday as clashes raged in the separatist east despite international efforts to arrange a new truce that could also calm flaring East-West tensions.

Western-backed President Petro Poroshenko named a new defence minister and top general as his forces reported pressing on with an offensive to oust pro-Russian insurgents from the restive country’s industrial east.

New Defence Minister Valeriy Geletey immediately pledged to deliver a knockout blow to the rebels after Poroshenko this week ditched a 10-day truce.

“I am sure that Ukraine will win and believe me that there will be a victory parade,” the 46-year-old former police commander told lawmakers.

Ukrainian troops backed by tanks and bomber jets have stepped up their campaign since a shaky ceasefire failed to stem 11 weeks of violence that have claimed more than 460 lives.

But Ukraine’s poorly trained and ill-equipped forces face a mammoth task of defeating highly organised militias both Kiev and the West accuse the Kremlin of arming and funding — a charge Russian President Vladimir Putin flatly denies.

The border service said that nine guards were wounded on Thursday when shells hit a key crossing with Russia that Kiev had celebrated retaking just days earlier.

Gunmen dressed in camouflage also shot dead three Ukrainian policemen and wounded another in the rebel-held city of Donetsk.

The defence ministry accused gunmen in the two Russian border regions under their command of launching 16 attacks on government checkpoints in a 24-hour span ending early on Thursday.

– International peace push –

The latest battles came despite a flurry of diplomacy aimed at convincing Kiev and the separatists to agree to a fresh round of indirect talks to hammer out a new ceasefire.

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Putin by phone to help organise a another meeting of the so-called Contact Group on the crisis by this weekend.

The two European leaders urged Putin to persuade the rebellion’s leaders to negotiate — something he has avoided doing while blaming Kiev for the truce’s failure.

But the Kremlin said only that Putin “expressed his deep concern” over the growing number of civilians casualties and the sharp increase in the number of refugees from the conflict zone into Russia.

Both Kiev and the rebel command refuse to negotiate directly. The West would now like to arrange of a third round of “consultations” in which Kiev is represented by former president Leonid Kuchma.

Poroshenko told US Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday that he was “ready to return to the old ceasefire” under two conditions.

The Ukrainian presidency said the first required the fighters to agree to two-way talks that excluded the presence of Moscow envoys.

The second concerned “the release of all hostages and the establishment of border controls that include OSCE monitors”.

But the insurgents insisted on Thursday that Russia’s presence at the negotiating table was vital.

Moscow has also insisted that the talks be convened before any new border agreement is held.

Where exactly such a meeting could be arranged is also unclear. Previous discussions have taken place in Donetsk but Kiev now appears reluctant to meet there again.

– ‘Explosion of violence’ –

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has warned that Ukraine faces “an explosion of violence” if a new truce fails to emerge.

The international agreement over the need for talks is a point of rare agreement between Russia and the West in their Cold War-style battle for the future of the strategic ex-Soviet state.

Putin says Poroshenko bears full responsibility for the latest deaths while Washington and its European allies have backed Ukraine’s right to defend the country from separatist “aggression”.

Washington and the European Union are also threatening devastating economic sanctions that could cut off Russia’s entire banking system from the West and restrict its important arms exports.

The European Union “has made clear that we are ready to impose further sanctions on Russia if they fail to take the necessary steps to end military hostility,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters after phone talks with his Ukrainian counterpart.

“I urge the Russian Federation to use its influence over illegally armed groups and to stop the flow of weapons and militants into the east of Ukraine.”