Ukrainian officials alleged that the rebels were fighting a desperate rearguard action to hold on to Luhansk – which is their supply route into neighbouring Russia – and said the flow of weapons and fighters from Russia has accelerated.
The foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia were preparing to meet for talks in Berlin yesterday, though it seemed likely that the diplomacy could be overshadowed by fast-moving developments on the battlefield.
Russia denies helping the rebels and accuses Kiev, backed by the west, of triggering a humanitarian crisis through indiscriminate use of force against Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine who reject the Ukrainian government’s rule.
Andriy Lysenko, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said government forces fought separatists in a neighbourhood of Luhansk city on Saturday and took control of the Zhovtneviy neighbourhood police station.
“They raised the state flag over it,” Lysenko told a news briefing.
A photograph posted on Twitter appeared to show a Ukrainian flag on the front of the police station, but it could not be independently verified. If confirmed, the taking of the police station is significant because the city of Luhansk has for several months been a rebel redoubt where Kiev’s writ has not run.
Ukrainian troops have been closing in on the city from the outskirts, but had not previously been able to get forces inside the city limits. The separatists still control sections of the border linking the Luhansk region to Russia.
The four-month-old 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.
The rebels have responded to the reverses with defiant rhetoric, and the fighting continues.
Ukrainian authorities said yesterday that the separatists shot down a Ukrainian warplane. The pilot ejected and was located and recovered after a search, a military spokesman, Oleksiy Dmytrashkivsky, said.
On Saturday, Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said rebels were in the process of receiving some 150 armoured vehicles, including 30 tanks, and 1,200 fighters trained in Russia. He said they planned to launch a major counter-offensive.
“They are joining at the most crucial moment,” he said in a video recorded on Friday.
The assertion that the fighters were trained in Russia is awkward for Moscow, which has repeatedly denied allegations from Kiev and its western allies that it is providing material support to separatist fighters.
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 Ukraine 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.
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.
It was despatched by Moscow bound for eastern Ukraine but has been parked up for several days in Russia near the border.
Kiev has said the convoy could be a Trojan Horse for Russia to get weapons to the rebels, a notion that Moscow has dismissed as absurd. It said the aid is desperately needed by civilians left without water and power and under constant bombardment from the Ukrainian advance.