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Last updated: August 28, 2014 8:14 am
Pro-Russian rebels entered a new town in southeast Ukraine on Wednesday while Kiev accused Russia of sending more troops into its territory, dispelling hopes of political progress after talks between the two countries’ presidents.
Rebels entered Novoazovsk, a strategically important town on the Sea of Azov 10km from the Russian border, the town’s mayor announced. It is on the road linking Russia to Crimea, the peninsula Moscow annexed in March, and is some distance south of the existing rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Andriy Lysenko, a Ukrainian army spokesman, said rebels had not seized the town but had entered the outskirts following heavy shelling. He alleged the rebels were being backed by Russian troops and weapons which Ukraine said crossed into its territory on Monday.
Mr Lysenko also claimed a further group of Russian soldiers had crossed its border on Wednesday and travelled to Amrosiyivka, a town on the road to Donetsk where Ukraine detained 10 Russian soldiers on Monday.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said in a telephone call with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, that reports of the Russian incursion needed to be clarified.
“The latest reports of the presence of Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory must be explained,” said Steffen Seibert, her spokesman. “She emphasised Russia’s major responsibility for de-escalation and watching over its own frontiers.”
The alleged incursion could not be independently verified and there was no immediate response from Moscow.
If confirmed, however, it will further fuel concerns in Kiev and western capitals that Russia is stepping up its support to separatist rebels, and that separatists are starting to reverse gains made by Ukraine’s military in recent weeks.
Jen Psaki, a US state department spokeswoman, warned on Wednesday “these incursions indicate a Russian-directed counter-offensive is likely under way”.
The fighting around Novoazovsk creates a de facto new front in the conflict, close to Mariupol. This coastal city has been used by Ukraine as a logistical base to support its campaign against the rebels further north in Donetsk and Lugansk.
It could also signal that Moscow is seeking to establish a direct land link under its control between Russia and the seized Crimean peninsula nearly 300km away.
“Our forces are currently engaged with Russian forces with tanks that are on the territory of Ukraine near . . . Novoazovsk,” said Oleksander Danylyuk, an adviser to Ukraine’s defence minister. “We are also increasingly facing genuine Russian soldiers in addition to mercenaries armed by Russia on the other fronts in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.”
The developments came just hours after talks in Minsk between Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and Mr Putin – the first face-to-face meeting between the two men since June.
Though the talks produced no breakthrough, Mr Poroshenko said on Wednesday he would work towards a road map for a bilateral ceasefire, which he said Mr Putin had supported.
Pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine have escalated the political turmoil that threatens to tear the country apart
Mr Putin made no reference to the road map proposal, but said he would do “everything” to work towards peace. Talks were set to continue between the two countries and EU representatives in a three-way contact group, Mr Poroshenko said.
After two hours of bilateral talks between the two leaders, however, no details emerged of what the ceasefire plan might look like and no indication of how the eastern rebels might respond.
Mr Putin refused to be drawn on Ukraine’s claims that Moscow was supporting the rebels. He insisted the conflict was an internal Ukrainian matter and it was not his role to negotiate between Kiev and the rebels.
“We didn’t substantively discuss that, and we, Russia, can’t substantively discuss conditions of a ceasefire, of agreements between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. That’s not our business, it’s up to Ukraine itself,” he told reporters.
In Moscow, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, suggested Russia may send regular humanitarian convoys to Ukraine.
Mr Lavrov said Russia hoped to reach agreement soon with Kiev on sending a second humanitarian convoy to eastern Ukraine, plans for which he announced earlier this week. “I am sure that it will not be the last, as aid is needed on an enormous scale,” he told a youth forum.
Kiev and the west have greeted Russia’s aid convoy scheme with suspicion, warning that Moscow might ultimately use the trucks as a way to further entrench itself on the ground in Ukraine, or as a distraction to mask Russia’s real intentions.
Despite the talks in Minsk, tensions remained high between Ukraine and Russia on Wednesday. Arseniy Yatseniuk, Ukrainian premier, claimed Kiev had learned of plans by Russia to continue a current shut-off of natural gas to Ukraine through the winter. Mr Yatseniuk gave no details of the alleged plans.
Mr Putin had called earlier for a resumption of the “energy dialogue” between the two countries. Speaking in Minsk, Günther Oettinger, EU energy commissioner, said three-way gas consultations would take place in Moscow on Friday between Russia, Ukraine and the EU, with Brussels acting as mediator.
In an attempt to broker a compromise before winter, Mr Oettinger suggested that the parties could agree an “interim price” before reaching a longer-term deal. However, the commissioner did not give any further deals on what form an “interim” deal could take.
Additional reporting by Christian Oliver in Brussels
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