Pro-Russian separatists shot down a Ukrainian warplane in eastern Ukraine overnight into Sunday, a military spokesman said, as Moscow denied rebel claims that it had sent military equipment across the border.
Local authorities said that at least 10 civilians were killed in the rebel-held city of Donetsk as a fresh round of fighting broke out, involving artillery and mortars, after the insurgents claimed they were receiving fresh stocks of heavy military equipment from Russia and 1,200 fighters.
Moscow sternly denied sending such equipment.
"We have repeatedly said that no equipment is being sent there," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Govorit Moskva radio, but did not mention the rebels' additional claim of receiving a fresh injection of troops trained "on Russian territory".
The four-month conflict in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east has reached a critical phase, with Kiev and Western governments watching nervously to see if Russia will intervene in support of the increasingly besieged rebels - something denied by Moscow.
A Ukrainian military spokesman said the rebels had hit a MiG-29 fighter jet over the Luhansk region, one of two regions where entrenched separatists are fighting a rear-guard action to hold off government forces advancing on their positions.
The pilot ejected and was located and recovered after a search, the spokesman, Oleksiy Dmytrashkivsky, told Reuters.
Donetsk, the region’s biggest city where rebels are also still dug in despite an encroaching government offensive, rocked to the crash and boom of heavy weapons in the south throughout the night.
Kiev says Russian military equipment seen entering Ukraine
The Ukrainian National Guard said its forces had seized a rebel field commander from Luhansk region as well as 13 others suspected of “terrorist activity”.
“The terrorists are putting on ordinary clothes, taking only their passport with them and are trying to pass themselves off as ordinary peaceful citizens on public transport to try to get through the Ukrainian checkpoints,” it said. ”Among those seized is a field commander of the Luhansk terrorist group.”
Ukrainian government forces also took control of a police station in Luhansk and raised the Ukrainian flag there, a military spokesman said on Sunday.
The spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, also told journalists that fresh Russian military equipment has been seen coming into the country from Russia in the past 24 hours, including three Grad missile systems. Russian drones had violated Ukrainian air space on 10 occasions, Lysenko added.
It followed claims by Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, that rebels were in the process of receiving some 150 armoured vehicles, including 30 tanks, and 1,200 trained fighters with which they planned to launch a major counter-offensive against government forces.
“They are joining at the most crucial moment,” he said in a video recorded on Friday. He did not specify where the vehicles would come from.
Ukraine, Russian foreign ministers to meet in Berlin
The renewed fighting and rebel claims of reinforcements from Russia was certain to be broached at a meeting scheduled in Berlin later on Sunday of Ukrainian, Russian, German and French foreign ministers.
France said the meeting could be a first step towards a peace summit.
Moscow has come under heavy Western sanctions over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and accusations it is supporting the separatists with fighters, arms and funds. Russia denies those charges.
In a sign of concern at the latest rebel comments, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko agreed in a phone call on Saturday that deliveries of weapons to separatists in Ukraine must stop and a ceasefire must be achieved, a German government spokesman said.
The risk of outright war between the two most powerful former Soviet states was highlighted on Friday when Ukraine said it partially destroyed an armoured column that had crossed the border from Russia. The report triggered a sell-off in global shares.
But Moscow made no threat of retaliation and dismissed as a “fantasy” the assertion that its armoured vehicles had entered its neighbour’s territory.
The United Nations said this month that an estimated 2,086 people, including civilians and combatants, had been killed in the four-month conflict. That figure nearly doubled since the end of July, when Ukrainian forces stepped up their offensive and fighting started in urban areas.
In Donetsk which is now ringed by Kiev’s forces, artillery fire has struck apartment buildings, killing and wounding residents. Officials in Kiev deny they are firing heavy weapons at residential areas.
Aid trucks head towards Ukraine border
Adding to the tensions, Russia and Ukraine have been at loggerheads for days over a convoy of 280 Russian trucks carrying water, food and medicine, which remained about 20 km (12 miles) from the Ukrainian border, unmoved since Friday.
Officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross said most procedures had been agreed by Russia and Ukraine but the two sides still needed to figure out how to provide security before the convoy moves ahead under the ICRC’s aegis. It was not clear when a deal on security could be agreed.
A Reuters journalist reported from the Russian settlement of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, where the convoy has been waiting, that 16 trucks from the convoy had left the marshalling yard and headed in the direction of the Ukrainian border.
The Ukrainian government said late on Saturday it had designated the Russian convoy as humanitarian aid, in principle clearing it to cross the border under the auspices of the Red Cross. The Russia column comprises about 280 trucks in total.
Russia says it is a purely humanitarian mission in support of civilians in areas hit by the conflict, but Ukraine is concerned it could serve as a ‘Trojan horse’ to infiltrate military supplies or create a pretext for armed intervention.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-08-17