Russian-backed rebels escalate attacks in Ukraine

Firefighters tackle a blaze in Donetsk as artillery duels brought the conflict in Ukraine back to life despite a ceasefire agreement. Picture: AP
Firefighters tackle a blaze in Donetsk as artillery duels brought the conflict in Ukraine back to life despite a ceasefire agreement. Picture: AP
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Ukraine has accused Russian-backed rebels of launching 86 attacks in just one day and Moscow of amassing 50,000 troops on its border.

The accusations followed a spate of bloody artillery duels between government and rebel forces that left around ten people dead in the worst outbreak of violence in eastern Ukraine for weeks. The fighting flared despite a ceasefire agreement remaining in place.

Ukrainian military commanders yesterday said rebel forces had also used heavy artillery to attack their ground troops on Monday despite the truce agreement prohibiting the use of such weapons.

In turn, rebel commanders accused government forces of killing five civilians in artillery attacks on urban areas under their control.

The fighting sparked fears that the ceasefire agreement might dissolve and be replaced by a return to the all-out war in eastern Ukraine that has claimed some 6,800 lives since April last year. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, said he was “seriously alarmed” by the fighting while the EU “strongly condemned the escalation”.

In an indication of the marked rise in tensions, Vladyslav Seleznikov, press secretary for the Ukrainian general staff, said Russia was piling pressure on Kiev by stationing troops on the border and that the rebels rejected an end to the violence.

“It is known that 50,000 troops of the Russian armed forces have been deployed along the state border between Ukraine and the Russian Federation,” he said.

“All militant actions are aimed at escalating the conflict; this is further evidence that the representatives of the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republic are terrorist organisations which do not seek peace in this conflict, and instead stir up the situation as much as possible.”

Ukraine, along with the West, has long accused Moscow of fomenting and prolonging the war in eastern Ukraine by supporting rebel forces with regular Russian troops and supplies of military hardware. Moscow has denied these allegations on numerous occasions, and described the conflict in Ukraine as a “civil war”.

Referring to the increase in fighting Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, said the blame for it lay the door of the Ukrainian government.

The outbreak of fighting has struck a further blow to the prospect of a lasting peace in eastern Ukraine. Although the cease-fire has made a significant reduction to the level of violence in the region it has so far made little progress at creating a lasting political settlement.

Moscow, which is a signatory of the ceasefire, has accused the Ukrainian government of undermining peace efforts by refusing to talk with the eastern rebels.

But Kiev regards the separatists as little more than Moscow’s stooges.