Ukrainian army, rebels reports gains in eastern Ukraine
Leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France to hold peace talks
Fighting intensified Tuesday in eastern Ukraine ahead of much-anticipated peace talks, with both sides claiming significant advances. The government accused the Russian-backed rebels of killing seven people and wounding 58 by shelling a town far behind the front lines.
The fighting, which the United Nations says has killed more than 5,300 people since April, comes ahead of a crucial summit planned for Wednesday in Minsk involving the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of fuelling the rebellion with troops and weapons. Moscow denies the charge but the sheer number of sophisticated heavy weapons in the rebel hands belies the denial.
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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told the parliament in Kyiv that the separatists launched a rocket strike Tuesday on the town of Kramatorsk, which is more than 50 kilometres away from the nearest front line. Poroshenko said the first round of rocket fire hit the region's Ukrainian military command headquarters and the second salvo landed in a residential area.
Rebels denied any involvement in the attack. Kramatorsk was the site of major fighting until July, when pro-Russian separatists retreated.
The government-controlled Donetsk administration said seven civilians were killed and 26 civilians and 32 servicemen were wounded by the rocket barrage in Kramatorsk. Photos on the local Donetskiye Novosti website showed an artillery shell stuck in the ground next to a residential building and two bodies lying nearby.
Much further south, the volunteer Azov battalion, loyal to the government in Kyiv, said on social media Tuesday that it captured several villages northeast of the strategic port of Mariupol, pushing the rebels closer to the border with Russia. Rebel spokesman Eduard Basurin, in a televised news conference, insisted however that the rebels had not retreated.
The Azov said rebels shelled the village of Kominternove, east of Mariupol, causing unspecified civilian casualties. An Associated Press reporter at a government checkpoint between there and Mariupol heard about fighting several miles away and saw two ambulances and four trucks carrying Ukrainian troops from the direction of Kominternove toward Mariupol.
Oleksandr Turchynov, chairman of the Ukrainian Security and Defence Council, visited the battalion Tuesday and said the government offensive aimed to bolster the defences of Mariupol and "protect civilians from artillery strikes."
The rebels reported advances, too. Basurin said they have surrounded the railway hub of Debaltseve, the focus of fierce fighting in the past weeks, cutting it off from a major highway. A video posted online by a rebel-sympathizing website showed the separatists moving along the highway while the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers lay on the side of the road.
At least seven Ukrainian troops were killed overnight in the east, military spokesman Anatoliy Matyukhin said, while in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, which faces frequent shelling, two civilians were reported killed and 12 injured.
Amid the escalating hostilities, the insurgents announced a call-up of new volunteer recruits in Donetsk, in line with separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko's pledge to strengthen his forces to 100,000 men. Rebel official Arkadiy Fedoseyev said he wants to recruit "tank drivers, mechanics, technicians, repairmen."
One 18-year-old volunteer, who gave only his first name, Nikolai, said he had come from the Russian city of Volgodonsk.
"I have no parents. I'm from an orphanage. I saw on television how other people's parents are being killed and I decided that this was not good," he said, adding that he wants to be a sniper.
The mounting death toll comes amid renewed efforts to work out a peaceful solution in a conflict that has displaced at least 1 million people and left the Ukrainian economy in ruins.
Representatives of Ukraine, Russia, rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe met Tuesday to lay the groundwork for Wednesday's summit in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke by phone with both Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin on Tuesday to push for compromises on difficult issues.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin warned the West against sending weapons to Ukraine or putting pressure on Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the Russian News Service radio station Tuesday that any talk about imposing new sanctions on Russia or arming the Ukraine government would destabilize the situation.