Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ukrainian Forces Press Attacks On Rebel-Held Areas

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Government troops pressed attacks Tuesday in the two largest cities held by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, while Kiev also pursued diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict that has killed more than 2,000 and displaced another 300,000.


Residents in Eastern Ukraine hiding in a basement shelter.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prepared to host German Chancellor Angela Merkel this weekend before heading to a meeting next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The next two weeks "will be crucial for finding the way to move from war to peace," said Valery Chaly, the deputy head of Poroshenko's administration.

He said in a televised briefing that Kiev sees "clear diplomatic roadmap" ahead and expressed hope that a new approach could be found to end the war.

Poroshenko's efforts to quell the insurgency have been focused on encircling Donetsk, the largest rebel-controlled city and a regional capital.

Fighting began in mid-April after Russia annexed Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea, while Kiev's forces have recaptured significant amounts of territory from the separatists.

Moscow has denied allegations by Kiev and the West that it has fomented the rebellion in the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine.

It says the Ukrainian government has discriminated against residents of the region who seek closer ties to Russia.

In fighting Tuesday, one soldier was killed and four were wounded when a pro-Kiev battalion of volunteers came under mortar fire before entering the town of Ilovaysk, 18 kilometers (11 miles) east of Donetsk, Ukrainian officials said.

Among the wounded in Ilovaysk was the commander of the Donbass battalion, Semyon Semenchenko, who said his forces had destroyed three rebel checkpoints and four firing positions and that fighting continued.

Semenchenko, who appears in public in his trademark balaclava, has cult hero status in Ukraine for his battlefield exploits.

Ukrainian troops also captured a neighborhood in the regional capital of Luhansk, battling rebels on the city's streets, National Security Council spokesman Colonel Andriy Lysenko said.

The fighting has killed at least 2,086 people as of Aug. 10, and it has forced nearly 344,000 to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.

Living conditions in rebel-held cities had deteriorated rapidly in recent weeks.

With the rebels losing more and more ground, the Kremlin announced a summit will be held in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 26 that would also include top officials from Ukraine, the European Commission and the Customs Union bloc, which is made up of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus.

Putin and Poroshenko have not met since early June.

Poroshenko, who confirmed the meeting, said "stabilizing the situation" in eastern Ukraine would be a key topic of discussion.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, however, that the Russian leader wanted to talk about the deteriorating humanitarian situation there.

But first, Poroshenko will meet Saturday in Kiev with Merkel.

Germany, Europe's largest economy with close business ties with Moscow, has played a leading role in trying to defuse the crisis.

The conflict has recently taken a huge toll on Luhansk, a city near the Russian border that has been left without electricity, running water or phone service for 17 days. 

Central Luhansk came under fierce shelling overnight, killing and wounding civilians, the city administration said, without giving specific casualty figures. 

Residents were reported to be standing in lines to buy bread.

Authorities also expressed fears about the possible outbreak of infectious diseases from mounting piles of garbage that have been uncollected for more than two weeks. 

Artillery fire also was heard across Donetsk, with areas on the outskirts hit hardest city, authorities said.

A resident of Olenivka, a village south of Donetsk, told The Associated Press by phone that Ukrainian government troops were firing artillery from fields near her house.

The woman, who asked to be identified only as Tatyana because she feared reprisal from the troops, said houses in her village had been hit by return fire in previous days.

Loud blasts could be heard in the background as she spoke.

The eyewitness accounts appeared to dispute statements from the Kiev government that armed forces have refrained from aiming rockets at residential areas.

The Defense Ministry in Kiev released a video purporting to show that rebels killed dozens of civilians in a shelling attack Monday on a convoy of refugees fleeing Luhansk.

The rebels denied any attack took place, while the U.S. confirmed that the convoy was hit but said it did not know who was responsible.

The video showed people who reportedly survived the attack speaking in the village of Novosvitlovka.

A young man was shown sobbing in a hospital bed.

A woman who was not seen on camera said the man's mother was killed in the attack.

The video, which was posted online, could not be independently verified.

Ukraine and the West have voiced concerns about Russia's military activity near the border.

Moscow has invited a mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to observe two border crossings to try to counter allegations that Russia is supplying the rebels with weapons.

Paul Picard, head of that OSCE mission, told reporters in a Russian border town that observers had seen a marked increase in military activity around the border points over the past week.

Tensions have been high since Russia announced plans last week to send an aid convoy of more than 200 trucks to help alleviate the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the east.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is expected to take responsibility for the convoy when it enters Ukraine, was still awaiting security guarantees from all sides.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said both Moscow and the rebels have provided security guarantees for the convoy — unlike Kiev.

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Evhen Perebiynis said Kiev could not guarantee its safety on rebel territory because it does not control the area.

Russia has chosen to try to send its convoy through a rebel-held border post, against Ukraine's wishes.

Also Tuesday, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the first remains of Malaysians who were killed when a jetliner was shot down over Ukraine will be flown home this week.

All 298 people on board died when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down July 17 over the rebel-held area in the Donetsk region.

Source: AP

Advancing Ukraine Troops Take Fight To Heart Of Pro-Moscow Rebellion

DONETSK, Ukraine -- A gun battle broke out in the center of the rebel-held Ukrainian city of Donetsk and residents ran for cover from artillery fire on Tuesday, taking a government military offensive into the heart of the retreating pro-Moscow separatist rebellion.


A Ukrainian soldier postures on an armored personnel as troops have reportedly surrounded the pro-Russian rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart will meet next week for the first time in months to try to end their confrontation over the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, their offices said.

In a prelude to the talks between Putin and Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is to visit the Ukrainian capital Kiev on Saturday, her office said, to show support for the Ukrainian government.

A diplomatic solution would have to resolve a contradiction: with his troops advancing and victory possibly within reach, Poroshenko has little incentive to offer the kind of compromises that would allow Putin to achieve a face-saving deal. 

Donetsk has for months been the headquarters of Ukraine's separatist rebellion, with rebel flags flying over administrative buildings and where residents strolled along the main avenue lined with flower bed and fountains.

On Tuesday afternoon, the center of the city was transformed into a battle zone.

A Reuters reporter said intense shooting broke out.

Five or six rebel gunmen ran through a shopping mall car park, ducking behind cars and firing their guns.

It was not possible to determine at whom they were firing; there was no sign of Ukrainian troops and the rebels remained in control of the center.

In a park near the rebel headquarters building, residents fled when they heard the sound of shelling nearby.

Shops closed early, and cars with gunmen inside sped through the streets, ignoring red traffic signals.

A few hours earlier, fighting broke out in Makiyivka, a neighborhood on the eastern edge of Donetsk that until Tuesday had not seen any combat.

A resident of Makiyivka who gave his name as Svyatoslav said he had seen separatist fighters turning back an ambulance from the scene of the fighting, telling the crew there was no one left alive for them to treat.

"They're having to retreat, they're not able to stand their ground the way they want to," he said of the rebels.

Ukrainian officials said their troops were also fighting rebels in the center of the other big separatist stronghold, the city of Luhansk, on the border with Russia. 

DIPLOMACY 

The conflict, which began when street protests put a Western-leading leadership in power in Kiev against Moscow's wishes, has dragged relations between Russia and the West to their worst level since the end of the Cold War.

It has also triggered a round of trade sanctions and retaliatory measures which are hurting fragile economies both in Russia and in European Union states.

Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea earlier this year.

Since then, Kiev and its Western backers say Russia has been arming the anti-Kiev rebellion in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, an allegation that Moscow has denied.

The offices of the Ukrainian and Russian presidents said both men would attend a meeting in the Belarus capital, Minsk, on Aug. 26, which is also to be attended by EU officials, and the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Officially, the meeting concerns relations between the EU and a customs union involving Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, but Ukraine will top the agenda.

The meeting will be the first between Putin and Poroshenko since a fleeting encounter in Normandy, France, in June at commemorations of the World War Two D-day landings.

European officials say privately that they will keep up pressure on Putin to not support the rebels, but at the same time Ukraine has to be persuaded not to ruthlessly press home its advantage on the battlefield.

That could humiliate the Kremlin and force it into an unpredictable reaction, officials say.

Stefan Meister of the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations said Merkel would use her visit to Kiev to back Poroshenko, but also to test how flexible Kiev is willing to be to achieve a deal with Moscow.

"In order to get a compromise with Russia, you need movement from Ukraine.

How prepared are they to do that at a time when they are on the offensive in the east, trying to establish facts on the ground?" said Meister.

"I have the feeling Putin may be ready to talk but he can't lose face."

Russian officials welcomed any European moves to bring Kiev - which they blame for what they call a humanitarian disaster in eastern Ukraine - to the negotiating table in earnest.

A senior Russian foreign ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "We welcome any movement, any understanding by the West, especially Germany, that the situation cannot be resolved without solving the problem inside Ukraine, in the same way that pressure on Russia did not and does not make any sense."

DEATH TOLL

The fighting in eastern Ukraine has taken a heavy human toll.

The United Nations says an estimated 2,086 people, including civilians and combatants, have 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, artillery fire has struck apartment buildings, killing and wounding residents.

Officials in Kiev deny they are firing heavy weapons at residential areas.

A doctor at a maternity hospital showed Reuters a ward that she had set up in a cellar, for use when the shelling makes it too dangerous for mothers to give birth above ground.

Luhansk has been largely cut off for weeks and is now in its 17th day without water and regular supplies of electricity which have hit mobile and landline phone connections.

A statement issued by the press service of the Luhansk municipality painted a picture of misery and fear for inhabitants there.

"Overnight there was fresh shelling. The center of the town has seriously suffered particularly near the central market ... As a result of the armed clashes civilians have been wounded and killed. There is further destruction (of buildings)," it said.

Fires had broken out in several places after shelling.

Only vital foodstuffs were on sale.

"Bread is being sold from vehicles, with big queues forming ... Interrupted supplies of food, medicines and fuel to Luhansk is a particularly acute problem," the statement said.

Some of the people who fled the fighting crossed the border into Russia and were gathered at a refugee camp near the Russian village of Donetsk.

Roman Dubchak, 40, a coal miner from east Ukraine, said he fled with seven of his family members, including his disabled father and three children.

"We have nothing left: no job, no cash and no accommodation. We are heading nowhere," he said at the refugee camp, sitting near a tent.

"Our (mine) shaft was destroyed by a combat aircraft, our village no longer exists." 

Source: Google News

Ukrainian And Russian Leaders Will Meet As Rebels Continue To Falter

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian forces pushed deeper into territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels on Tuesday, fighting street battles in the besieged city of Luhansk and pressuring the outer defenses of Donetsk in a further blow to the separatists’ crumbling virtual state.


While continuing its offensive, the Ukrainian government said it saw a chance for a peaceful settlement after an announcement that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia would meet next Tuesday with his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro O. Poroshenko, and European Union leaders in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

“I come with positive news; I think we have a chance to switch to a real road map towards a peaceful process,” Valery Chaly, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, said at a news conference in Kiev.

As other Western states have had to focus on domestic issues, Chancellor Angela Merkel has helped ease fears in the Baltics.

Previous efforts toward a settlement, which included a meeting of foreign ministers last week in Berlin, have all failed, and even an agreement on when and how a Russian aid convoy could enter Ukraine has proved elusive.

The convoy of more than 260 trucks remained stuck on the Russian side of the border, a week after it left Moscow.

Ukrainian officials expressed bewilderment over why many of the Russian trucks appeared to be mostly empty if their only purpose was to deliver humanitarian aid. 

Despite the repeated diplomatic setbacks, Mr. Chaly said the two countries’ presidents stood a better chance of a breakthrough that could bring an end to the war in eastern Ukraine.

Talks have foundered on Russia’s refusal to halt or even acknowledge what Ukraine and its Western supporters say is a steady flow of fighters and military hardware into Ukraine from Russia.

“We all realize that these issues can only be solved at the highest level, at the level of president, especially in the case of Russia,” Mr. Chaly said.

On the ground, fighting raged unabated, with Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, asserting that Ukrainian forces had entered the town of Ilovaysk, about 11 miles east of Donetsk, the rebels’ biggest remaining stronghold in eastern Ukraine. 

Ukrainian officials also reported fierce street battles in Luhansk, and said 15 bodies had been recovered from a refugee convoy that fled that city on Monday and was then, according to Ukraine, attacked by rebels fighting to regain control of a strategic highway leading south to the Russian border.

The rebels denied hitting a caravan of refugees.

The Defense Ministry in Kiev released a video of what it said were survivors of the attack describing how the convoy of vehicles had suddenly come under fire, despite flying white flags.

But no photographs or video footage have emerged of the assault.

In Donetsk, which along with Luhansk forms the core of the separatists’ fast-shrinking domain, the rebels struggled to keep control of outlying districts. 

Emblematic of the tightening squeeze on the city, an artillery duel broke out Tuesday to the northeast, in Makiivka, as representatives of a rebel Parliament were trying to deliver food to an orphanage for disabled preschool children, called the Special Child Center.

In the blighted industrial area, filled with the pipes and smokestacks of an aging coking plant, the rebels took up a position near the orphanage and fired mortars, oblivious to the aid delivery.

The Ukrainians then fired back.

None of the children were hurt, but in the ensuing shelling, at least three people died, and the neighborhood was whipped into a panic.

In the chaotic scene, women ran through the leafy courtyard clutching the hands of the children, residents emerged from apartments lugging hastily packed bags, and gunshots and explosions echoed among the apartment buildings.

On a street called Fifty Years of the Soviet Union, a dead woman lay on the sidewalk.

“They just bombarded us,” said Stanislav Nosov, a teenager crouching in the stairway to a basement.

“If they are shooting here, the battle for Donetsk has begun.”

But whether Ukraine’s final push into the city was really underway was unclear.

A rebel soldier said that the Ukrainian Army had not crossed a bridge over a canal that would indicate a ground assault on Donetsk, and that the din of explosions was in fact just a continuation of what in recent weeks has been a regular barrage into the city from Ukrainian positions outside.

The wounded were loaded into cars and ambulances and driven toward the center of town; after a time, the courtyard quieted and the yelling stopped.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has left at least 2,086 dead and more than 5,000 wounded, according to the United Nations.

Each side blames the other for the mounting toll.

The fighting around Donetsk and in Luhansk provided a grim counterpoint to unusually upbeat statements in Kiev about the possibility of a settlement.

“We have a busy and very exciting week ahead,” said Mr. Chaly, the presidential administration official.

“We are moving from telephone communication to direct diplomacy.”

Lifted by battlefield gains in recent weeks, the mood in Kiev was bolstered further on Tuesday by news that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany had accepted an invitation from Mr. Poroshenko to travel to Kiev this weekend, and that the European Union was considering a new round of economic assistance.

Ms. Merkel’s visit to Kiev will be her first since a popular uprising toppled the previous president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, in February and set off a revolt by pro-Russian separatists.

“We see this visit as a demonstration of solidarity at a very important time and a very important place,” Mr. Chaly said.

Source: The New York Times

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

From The Fringes Toward Mainstream: Russian Nationalist Broadsheet Basks In Ukraine Conflict

MOSCOW, Russia -- Not so long ago, the ultranationalist broadsheet "Zavtra" would occasionally pillory Russian President Vladimir Putin for various sins.


Andrei Fefelov, an editor at "Zavtra," in his Moscow offices.

But that all changed with Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.

"With Crimea joining [Russia], Putin suits us. Putin is even an inspiration to us,” says Andrei Fefelov, an editor at "Zavtra" and the son of the newspaper's founder, Aleksandr Prokhanov.

"We didn’t expect such steps from Putin. We didn't expect such a strategy. The Russian state is once again rising like a phoenix from the ashes."

Likewise, over the past several months, "Zavtra," once on the fringes of Russian political discourse, has found itself firmly in the mainstream.

Prokhanov, for example, makes regular appearances on state-controlled television stations and his articles are published in newspapers like the fiercely pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia."

Prokhanov and "Zavtra" haven't changed.

The newspaper, which claims a circulation of between 70,000 and 100,000, is still pushing the same visceral anti-Western views and neo-Stalinist views it always has.

What has changed, however, is Russian politics, which have taken a decisively nationalist and imperial turn during Putin's third term in the Kremlin.

"Yesterday's political marginals have become today's mainstream," said Yevgeny Kiselyov, who hosted the popular current affairs program "Itogi" (Summing Up) on Russia's NTV channel in the 1990s before falling out with Putin’s Kremlin and emigrating to Ukraine.

“It's clear that many of the ideas that were propagandized by Prokhanov...have become to an extent practically the principal line of Russian foreign policy." 

"Zavtra," which means "Tomorrow" in Russian, traces its origins back to the newspaper "Den," or "The Day," founded by Prokhanov in 1990 in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

In the early 1990s, it billed itself as "the spiritual opposition" to the pro-Western government of Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first post-Soviet president.

Following Yeltsin's bloody confrontation with hard-liners in the Russian parliament in October 1993, "Den" was shut down by the authorities.

But it was soon resurrected as "Zavtra," with Prokhanov still at the helm.

It continued to be a hotbed of the "red-brown" ideology, a fusion of nationalism, monarchism, and nostalgia for Soviet Communism.

The newspaper's staff describe their mission as providing an "ark" to preserve what they believe are the best elements of Russian identity -- Orthodox Christianity, Stalinism, authoritarianism, and nationalism.

Anton Shekhovtsov, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, describes "Zavtra" as "a fascist newspaper."

At the newspaper's Moscow headquarters, portraits of the Russian tsars and Soviet leader Josef Stalin adorn the walls.

Throughout the Yeltsin years, "Zavtra" remained on the margins and in fierce opposition to the Kremlin.

But when Prokhanov met Putin just months into his presidency in August 2000, he saw reason for hope.

"The Kremlin is once again mine, once again part of the family," he wrote in the weekly tabloid "Argumenty i Fakty."

But at times Putin proved to be a disappointment for Prokhanov and his ideological cohorts.

In 2001, the newspaper assailed Putin for selling out to the oligarchs, writing, “this isn’t a president of the dying Russian people, but the president of a group of national traitors.”

Another Zavtra article in 2004 criticized Putin as nothing more than a “continuation of Yeltsin anti-people politics" accusing him of abetting “oligarchy, banditry, corruption, and political prostitution.”

In 2005, the broadsheet scorned the president for serving only liberal “fundamentalists” taking from the people to enrich the oligarchs.

And assessing the issue of labor migration in 2012, it asked the question: If Putin is the “national leader,” which “nationality is he serving?”

"My views on Putin gradually evolved,” Prokhanov said in a recent interview.

"Slowly and cautiously, I began to realize what was happening was the restoration of the state. The most obvious moment was his victory in the second Chechen war."

But it was with the Ukraine crisis that "Zavtra" threw its support fully behind Putin's Kremlin.

Two of the paper’s alumni, former staff writer Aleksandr Borodai and contributor Igor Girkin, took up leading positions in the Russia-backed separatist campaign against Kiev.

Borodai served as the self-anointed prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic before he suddenly resigned on August 7.

Girkin -- also known as “Strelkov” -- was the rebel commander until resigning on August 14 following unconfirmed reports that he had been injured in battle.

Fefelov says "Zavtra" readers view Ukraine’s Donbas region -- part of what Russian nationalists call “Novorossia,” or "New Russia" -- as a potential paradise where communist, nationalist, and monarchist visions of Russia can be played out without being hamstrung by the restraints the real Russia faces.

He adds that “many friends and readers” approach "Zavtra" to enlist as volunteer fighters in eastern Ukraine.

The newspaper, he adds, has helped link them up with recruiters. 

Nikolai, a 60-year-old Muscovite and Zavtra reader who declined to give his surname, related his experience as a volunteer fighter in Luhansk.

He said he was there two months and manned checkpoints.

He claimed the Ukrainian army is perpetrating “genocide.”

He presented a photo of himself clutching an assault rifle standing in camouflage beside a frocked, armed, and bearded Orthodox priest.

He said he had only returned to Moscow to fetch humanitarian aid for the region. 

Prokhanov, for his part, says he had a one-on-one meeting with Putin at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence on July 30.

"It convinced again that my very first meeting with Putin did not deceive me," he said.

Putin's March 18 speech following the annexation of Crimea echoed many of the issues "Zavtra" has long advocated, including Moscow's obligation to protect all ethnic Russians, not just Russian citizens.

Nevertheless, Shekhovstov cautioned against overstating the newspaper's drift into the mainstream.

"They are becoming more acceptable to the mainstream, but they are not becoming part of it," he said.

"There is still a distance between the Kremlin’s ideas of Russian nationalism and Russian imperialism, and the version that 'Zavtra' proposes."

With Ukrainian forces gaining ground on the separatists in the east and as Western sanctions begin to harm the Russian economy, is there concern at "Zavtra" that Putin might ditch the rebels and abandon the Novorossia project entirely?

Not a chance, says Fefelov.

"It would be lethal for Putin," he says.

"You can't move a pawn backwards." In fact, the headline of a recent article by Prokhanov appeared to relish a protracted conflict with the West. “Hello Cold War!” it read.

Source: Radio Free Europe

Top Ukraine Rebel Leader Says Troops Training In Russia

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Ukrainian rebels are receiving new armored vehicles and fighters trained in Russia, with which they plan to launch a major counter-offensive against government forces, a separatist leader said in a video.


Pro-Russian rebels hold their positions on the frontline near the village of Krasnodon, eastern Ukraine.

The four-month conflict in eastern Ukraine 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 - an intention Moscow denies.

Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, said the rebels were in the process of receiving some 150 armored vehicles, including 30 tanks, and 1,200 fighters who he said had spent four months training in Russia.

"They are joining at the most crucial moment," he said.

He did not specify where the vehicles would come from.

Moscow has come under heavy Western sanctions over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea and accusations it is supporting separatists in east Ukraine with fighters, arms and funds.

Russia, as usual, 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 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 armored column that had crossed the border from Russia.

The report triggered a sell-off in global shares.

But Moscow made no threat of retaliation, instead saying it was a "fantasy" that its armored vehicles had entered its neighbor's territory.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden also spoke to Poroshenko, and the White House said: "The two leaders agreed that Russia's sending military columns across the border into Ukraine and its continued provision of advanced weapons to the separatists was inconsistent with any desire to improve the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine."

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin called on NATO to provide military support for Ukrainian troops.

The rebels, who have ceded ground to government forces in recent weeks, have been promising a counter-offensive for several days but have yet to launch one.

Ukrainian native Zakharchenko took over from Russian citizen Alexander Borodai last week and his combative comments will probably dash hopes that changes at the top of the rebel leadership might signal willingness to end hostilities.

CONVOY WAITS 

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.

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.

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.

The crisis has dragged relations between Russia and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War and set off a round of trade restrictions that are hurting struggling economies in both Russia and Europe.

The United Nations said this week that an estimated 2,086 people had been killed, with nearly 5,000 wounded.

The Finnish President, Sauli Niinisto, held talks in Kiev with Poroshenko, a day after discussing how to settle the crisis with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I do not see a great risk of an outright war," Niinisto said.

"My hopefulness is based on the fact that communication is open, at least by a crack."

France said a meeting of Ukrainian, Russian, German and French foreign ministers could be a first step towards a peace summit.

A rebel Internet news outlet said on Saturday that separatist fighters had killed 30 members of a Ukrainian government battalion in fighting in Luhansk province, a rebel-held area of eastern Ukraine adjacent to the Russian border.

A Ukrainian military spokesman, Colonel Andriy Lysenko, contradicted the rebel assertions.

He said three Ukrainian servicemen had been killed.

Ukrainian security forces had spotted Russian drones and a helicopter crossing illegally into Ukraine's airspace, Lysenko told a news briefing.

He denied Kiev's forces were firing artillery on Donetsk, one of two rebel strongholds in the east, where a Reuters reporter said explosions were audible in the city center on Saturday.

The Donetsk city administration said four people were killed in shelling that destroyed homes and set several buildings on fire.

MOMENTUM WITH THE ARMY 

The momentum on the ground is with the Ukrainian forces, who have pushed the separatists out of large swathes of territory and nearly encircled them in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Kiev says it now controls the road linking the two cities.

Russia says the Ukrainian offensive is causing a humanitarian catastrophe for the civilian population in the two cities.

It accuses Kiev's forces of indiscriminately using heavy weapons in residential areas, an allegation Ukraine denies.

In the past week, three senior rebel leaders have been removed from their posts, pointing to mounting disagreement over how to turn the tide of the fighting back in their favor.

Lysenko, the Ukrainian military spokesman, said he had reports of rebel fighters abandoning their posts in Luhansk, and preparing to leave Donetsk and seek safe haven in Russia.

"A mood of panic is spreading and rebels are trying to leave through the small gaps that remain," he said.

In Donetsk, the red, blue and black flag of separatists was flying on a pole in front of the headquarters.

Ten people armed with Kalashnikov rifles were standing on guard outside the main entrance in mismatched camouflage.

"Why should we flee? People are still coming and filling our ranks. Those who have lost their houses to Ukrainian shelling, what else would they do but fight back?," said a fighter who gave his name as Communist.

Source: The World Post

Dozens Killed In Attack On Convoy, Ukraine Says; Rebels Deny Firing Rocket

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Dozens of people, including women and children, were killed as they fled fighting in eastern Ukraine on Monday when their convoy of buses was hit by rocket fire, military spokesmen said.


Newcomers stand in a line to get registered at a temporary tent camp set up for Ukrainian refugees outside Donetsk, located in Russia's Rostov region near the Russian-Ukrainian border, August 18, 2014.

Ukraine accused pro-Russian rebels of targeting the convoy, which it said was bearing white flags when it was hit near the eastern city of Luhansk.

The separatists denied responsibility for the attack and one rebel leader suggested the incident might never have taken place.

"The rebels were expecting the convoy and destroyed it entirely," military spokesman Colonel Andriy Lysenko told journalists.

"We haven't been able to count the number of victims ... dozens (were killed)."

The convoy had been in an area of fierce fighting between government forces and the separatists when it came under fire from rebel Grad and mortar launchers, the spokesmen said.

"A powerful artillery strike hit a refugee convoy near the area of Khryashchuvatye and Novosvitlivka.

The force of the blow on the convoy was so strong that people were burned alive in the vehicles - they weren't able to get themselves out," military spokesman Anatoly Proshin told Ukrainian news channel 112.ua.

Describing the attack as a "bloody crime," Lysenko said: "A lot of people have been killed including women and children. The number of the dead is being established." 

A rebel leader denied his forces had the military capability to conduct such an assault, and accused Kiev forces of regularly attacking the area and also using Russian-made Grad missiles.

"The Ukrainians themselves have bombed the road constantly with airplanes and Grads. It seems they've now killed more civilians like they've been doing for months now. We don't have the ability to send Grads into that territory," said Andrei Purgin, deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.

Another rebel spokesman denied any civilian convoy had been struck, challenging the Kiev authorities to produce evidence.

"As far as I understand, there was no column of refugees in Luhansk region that fell under fire. We ... did not shoot any convoys (of refugees) with Grads and moreover we did not shoot with any Grads from Russia," said Alexander Zakharchenko, the main rebel leader in Donetsk.

In Kiev, a military spokesman, asked about visual evidence of the attack, said there was video footage on the Internet, although this could not immediately be traced. 

"My press officer was on the spot. There is no telephone link with him now but he was there and confirmed that the convoy was travelling under white flags and the terrorists were warned that a convoy with peaceful citizens would be passing," Oleksiy Dmytrashkivsky told Reuters.

He said the press officer had confirmed that many bodies of victims were burned beyond recognition.

The U.S. State Department condemned the shelling of the convoy but said it could not confirm who was responsible.

"We strongly condemn the shelling and rocketing of a convoy that was bearing internally displaced persons in Luhansk ... Sadly, they were trying to get away from the fighting and instead became victims of it," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told a news briefing in Washington.

REBELS UNDER PRESSURE 

The Kiev military reported new successes overnight, building on a weekend breakthrough when troops raised the national flag in Luhansk, a city held by pro-Russian separatists since fighting began in April.

Troops blockaded or recaptured rebel-held positions after international talks in Berlin failed to reach agreement on a ceasefire.

Nine soldiers were killed.

Western sanctions against Moscow have failed to stem what NATO says is a steady supply of military equipment and men sent from Russia to help the rebels.

Russia denies sending support, saying the rebels have seized equipment from the Ukrainians.

President Petro Poroshenko called on his top security advisers on Monday to address claims by the rebels to have received new stocks of heavy Russian military equipment and 1,200 trained Russian fighters.

Referring to the heavy loss in life among government forces, he said: "Today we need to regroup our forces to defend our territory and continue offensive actions by the army."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said all issues around a humanitarian convoy sent by Moscow to relieve needy areas of eastern Ukraine had been resolved, but no progress had been made in his talks in Berlin on Sunday with the Ukrainian, German and French foreign ministers on a ceasefire or a political solution.

Russia says it would like a ceasefire to allow aid to get to people trapped by the fighting.

A 280-truck convoy sent by Russia and carrying tonnes of humanitarian aid has been stalled at the Ukrainian border since last week, as Kiev has insisted on formalities so it can be properly distributed by the Red Cross.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, who was at the Berlin talks, said in comments posted by the ministry on Twitter:

"Russia must close the border and stop shelling. If you have mercenaries and weaponry coming through the border from the Russian federation, how can you reach a ceasefire?"

PROBLEMS IN THE RANKS 

In a further sign that the rebel leadership may be facing deep problems in its ranks, it said it was setting up military tribunals and bringing in the death penalty for a string of offences including desertion, espionage, attempts on the lives of the leadership and sabotage.

"Introducing the death penalty is not revenge, it is the highest degree of social protection," the rebels' website quoted a senior rebel leader, Vladimir Antyufeyev, as saying.

The possibility the rebels might be facing a rout presents Russian President Vladimir Putin, who boosted their ambitions by speaking of the creation of a "New Russia" in eastern Ukraine, with a difficult choice.

If he allows their defeat, he risks losing face before the "hawks" at home and the Russian people who largely applauded Moscow's annexation of Crimea in March.

But maintaining pressure on Kiev's pro-Western leaders through further support for the rebels risks wider economic sanctions from the United States and European Union.

Western sanctions have targeted Russia's financial and energy sectors as well as dozens of people close to Putin, and Russia has retaliated by banning a wide range of U.S. and EU food imports.

Moscow has struggled to control subsequent price rises and said on Monday it would allow imports from former Soviet Belarus and Kazakhstan of food made from Western raw materials which fall under the embargo.

Vedomosti daily newspaper said Moscow might ban imports of cars, among other things, if the United States and the EU take additional action against it.

The separatist conflict erupted after Russia seized the Crimean peninsula in March, following the ousting of a Moscow-backed Ukrainian president.

Separatists occupied key buildings in towns across the Russian-speaking east, declaring "people's republics" and saying they wanted to join Russia.

The United Nations said this month that an estimated 2,086 people, including civilians and combatants, had been killed in the conflict.

The death toll has nearly doubled since the end of July, when Ukrainian forces stepped up their offensive as they gained more ground against the rebels.

A military spokesman in Kiev said government forces had pressed the separatists in overnight fighting, encircling the rebel-held town of Horlivka between Luhansk and Donetsk, and taking control of smaller settlements in eastern Ukraine.

The military said it suspected the rebels had used a powerful Russian-made Uragan missile system for the first time southeast of Donetsk near the village of Novokaterinivka.

Source: Google News