The heavy fighting has increased fears of a return to the state of all-out war in eastern Ukraine that an abused truce, signed in September, has struggled to suppress.
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Kiev’s defence ministry reported mortar attacks and infantry assaults on government positions at the bitterly contested Donetsk airport and fighting in other areas had left two soldiers dead and four wounded.
The government said a woman died when rebels used tanks and Grad rocket launchers to shell army-held villages. It also reported rebels were now using new Russian weapons including the 24-barrel Buratino multiple-rocket launcher.
Kiev insists the Kremlin has orchestrated the war and supports rebels with Russian troops and equipment.
“Russian aggression is continuing. There has been a significant surge in the intensity of firing,” Oleksander Turchynov, secretary of the national defence council, told the Ukrainian parliament, adding rebels risked triggering a “large scale continental war” if they went on the offensive. He also claimed 8,500 Russian regular troops were now in eastern Ukraine while a further 52,000 were stationed on the Ukrainian border.
As an indication that the September truce might be unravelling once and for all, one of the leaders of the Russian-backed rebels said they have returned to “active military operations”.
The heavy fighting came just hours after 13 civilians died when a shell hit their bus at a government checkpoint on one of the bloodiest days of a conflict that has already claimed around 4,700 lives.
Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko said blame for the deaths lay with “those whose hand feeds and arms [the rebels],” in comments that made it clear he held Russia responsible.
In response Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, conceded that “there are…several versions [of the incident]. We need to examine them.”
With no political solution to a crisis that has sent East-West relations spiralling downwards and prompted some to claim a new Cold War has started, Ukraine is preparing to call up more men for active service.
“There is an urgent need to strengthen the combat and mobilisation readiness of our forces and other military forces up to a level which guarantees an adequate reaction to the threats to national security from continuing Russian aggression,” said Mr Turchynov.
On Wednesday Mr Poroshenko signed a new mobilisation decree that will come into force on 20 January and boost the armed forces by 50,000.
Defence minister Stepan Poltorak said that in 2015 about 104,000 men may be mobilised and defence officials have not ruled out calling up women aged from 25 to 50 if the situation continues to deteriorate.
Alexander Zakharchenko, a rebel leader, told reporters: “Ukraine is preparing for war. We are ready to respond adequately. We are not weak.”
As part of diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the crisis, Kazakhstan said it hoped to host talks between Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany this month. The move comes after the four nations failed to agree the terms of a summit meeting in talks held last week.
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