Several dead in Ukraine fighting as rebels press offensive

At least nine people, including seven soldiers, have been killed in fighting in east Ukraine over the past 24 hours as separatist rebels continued to push their offensive, officials said Monday.

“As a result of shelling, Ukraine has lost seven soldiers while 24 were injured,” army spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said.

The governor of the separatist Luhansk region also reported two civilians killed.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine had mainly died down following a September ceasefire, but in recent days the war has returned in full force, with the rebels announcing the effective end of the truce and an offensive to expand territory under their control.

At least 30 were killed and nearly 100 injured by a barrage of rocket fire in the port city of Mariupol on Saturday. Observers said the rockets had been fired from the direction of rebel-held territory.

That was followed by new attacks on Sunday against government positions elsewhere along the front line that winds through Luhansk and Donetsk, the Kiev army said.

“Rebels are attacking the positions of anti-terrorist operation troops extremely intensively, using artillery, mortars, grenade launchers, tanks,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said in a televised briefing.

Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Black Sea still controlled by Ukrainian forces, has been a symbolic bulwark against the separatist advance. If captured by the rebels, it would give them a land corridor to Russia-controlled Crimea.

The city had been relatively quiet for months before the Sunday attack.

There was no fighting in Mariupol early Monday. A road leading out of the city into rebel territory was closed off by Ukrainian forces, making it unclear whether the rebels had advanced closer to the city outskirts. The city streets were quiet as the families of those killed Sunday gathered to bury their dead.

The rebels have also vowed to encircle the strategically important town of Debaltseve, where Seleznyov said fighting was the most intense overnight Sunday.

Kiev, Moscow trade accusations

While Russian officials blamed Ukrainian forces for the Mariupol attack, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has said the rocket fire was masterminded “by terrorists who receive support in Russia”.

Ukraine also claimed Monday that Moscow had poured nearly 1,000 more Russian soldiers and dozens of tanks into the southeast to secure control over factories and coal mines that could help the rebels build their own state.

Western leaders also blame Russia for supporting the separatists and in the wake of the fresh violence in eastern Ukraine said Sunday they would consider further punitive measures against Moscow.

While current sanctions against Russia are set to expire this summer, US President Barack Obama said his country would work with its European partners to “ratchet up the pressure on Russia” after the latest violence.

The UN Security Council is set to hold a special meeting on the situation in eastern Ukraine on Monday, though a concrete outcome is unlikely.

A meeting of the council’s 15 members on Saturday failed to agree on a resolution denouncing the rocket attacks after Russia blocked the effort, according to Western diplomats.

As a permanent member of the council, Russia has veto power and previous meetings have been marked by verbal jousting between Western powers and Moscow representatives.

EU officials, meanwhile, said they would hold an extraordinary session to discuss the violence in Ukraine on Thursday.

In a call to Putin Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the Russian president to “put pressure” on pro-Kremlin separatists to end the upsurge in violence, her spokesman Steffen Seibert said.

New European Council President Donald Tusk — a former Polish prime minister who had long been suspicious of Putin — also called the Mariupol attack evidence that “appeasement encourages the aggressor to greater acts of violence”.

French President François Hollande meanwhile expressed his “very strong concern” over the Mariupol violence in talks with Poroshenko and Tusk.

The Kremlin flatly denies arming and funding the militants, as the West alleges.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday blamed the latest upswing in violence on Ukrainian authorities and urged the West not to show its support for Kiev with actions such as imposing new sanctions on Moscow.

“We see attempts to derail the peace process and attempts again and again by the Kiev leadership to solve the problem by using force to suppress the southeast. These attempts lead nowhere,” Lavrov told a news conference.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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