Ukraine leader says 9,000 Russian troops backing rebels

21st January 2015, Comments 0 comments

President Petro Poroshenko said on Wednesday that more than 9,000 Russian troops were backing Ukrainian separatist fighters that Moscow will be under pressure to reel in at high-stakes peace talks in Berlin.

Poroshenko's claims followed days of heavy fighting that has left an already shaky September truce in tatters and forced the pro-Western leader to cut short his visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

But the 49-year-old leader was greeted warmly at the Swiss forum as he delivered an emotional address that saw him holding up a fragment of a bus in which 13 civilians died after being hit by an alleged rebel-fired rocket last week.

More fighting on Wednesday killed at least six people across separatist-controlled regions of the ex-Soviet republic's industrial southeast.

"We have more than 9,000 troops of the Russian Federation on my territory, including more than 500 tanks and heavy artillery and armed personnel carriers," Poroshenko told the high-powered Swiss audience in English.

Ukraine on Tuesday alleged that Russian regular forces attacked its troops in the Lugansk region, the first such claim since the September ceasefire.

Moscow strongly denies supporting the insurgents despite NATO satellite imagery purporting to show its forces' presence in Ukraine -- photographs Russia claims were either doctored or misinterpreted by the Western military bloc.

"As for the charges of us supplying (the rebels with) troops and weapons -- we hear this all the time," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.

"And each time, I say: if you are so sure about this, show us the proof," Lavrov added. "But the proof -- they either do not want to present it or simply cannot."

Moscow's denials are unlikely to keep Kiev's latest charges from overshadow talks between the foreign minister of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany that are due to take place later on Wednesday in Berlin.

- Civilian toll -

Poroshenko stressed there was no military solution to the brutal nine-month conflict that has killed more than 4,800 people and brought Ukraine's economy to its knees.

But he also insisted that the key to peace was held by Russia.

"The solution is very simple. Stop supplying weapons. Stop supplying ammunition. Withdraw the troops and close the border. A very simple peace plan," Poroshenko said to a round of applause in Davos.

Concerns meanwhile mounted over the fate of civilians in the conflict, with the rebels accused of launching attacks from residential areas, drawing counter-fire from Ukrainian forces.

"Shelling continued during the night in Donetsk," the administration in the battered city said in a statement, adding early Wednesday that "the sound of heavy weapons can be heard everywhere."

- Energy independence -

Ukraine's severe financial crisis caused by extra war spending and the eastern region's industrial collapse has further complicated the situation, with Kiev requiring billions of dollars in help from world lenders.

Compounding the problem last year was a months-long cut off from Russian gas supplies in a dispute that stemmed from a disagreement over prices.

Kiev accused Moscow of using gas as a means of "economic aggression" and refused to pay the higher rates Russia slapped on Ukraine in the wake of last February's ouster of a Kremlin-backed president.

Poroshenko said Wednesday that Ukraine in the past year halved the amount of gas it imported from Russia and insisted that this trend would continue in the months to come.

He vowed to completely break Ukraine's expensive energy dependence on Russia by 2017 with the help of a transition to western European imports and his country's own shale gas supplies.

"I am absolutely sure that in two years' time, we will be absolutely energy independent from Russia," said Poroshenko.

- Border dispute -

Moscow and Kiev have traded blame for the recent wave of fighting that has centred around Donetsk's ruined airport.

The flare-up coincided with attempts by both sides to establish a demarcation line between their armies that would define the extent of rebel-controlled territory.

Two top Western diplomats in Kiev said they believed the pro-Russian militias had made significant progress on the ground in recent days.

One of them, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the rebel offensive appeared to be aimed at undermining European peace efforts in order to win more ground before a final partition agreement is reached.

© 2015 AFP

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