Fighting in breakaway eastern regions of Ukraine has escalated, with seven government soldiers and about 15 Russian-backed militants killed in battles near the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, officials said.
Ukrainian defence officials on Monday accused “Russian occupation forces” of firing, “using all the might of their arsenal along all front lines” from Donetsk, south towards the strategic port city of Mariupol. The separatists used Grad rocket systems in the attack, they said.
Donetsk-based separatist leaders blamed Kiev’s forces for the violence, which they said claimed the life of one of their top commanders.
The escalation of what had become routine daily skirmishes will add to a death toll that has already reached about 10,000 in a three-year undeclared war over territory near the Ukraine-Russia border.
Kiev accused Russian-backed separatists of provoking the battle by attempting to seize government positions north of Donetsk. In response, “our military servicemen went on the offensive taking an important position which has strategic significance”, Stepan Poltorak, Ukraine’s defence minister, said late on Sunday.
The attacks took place after Donald Trump held his first telephone call as US president with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, discussing both the Ukraine and Syria conflicts.
In Kiev, fears have grown that Mr Trump — who wants to reboot ties with Russia as part of a united fight against Isis — could drop sanctions on Moscow that were imposed as a response to its aggression in Ukraine, or recognise Russia’s 2014 illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
Mr Trump said last week it was “very early to talk” about lifting US sanctions against Russia, a move that he had earlier signalled was under consideration.
The flare-up in Ukraine was top of the agenda at talks in Berlin on Monday between Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, and Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor. “The ceasefire doesn’t exist,” said Ms Merkel at a joint press. “The security situation on the contact line raises concerns.”
Ms Merkel called for the implementation of the Minsk Agreement, the peace plan agreed in early 2015 to end the fighting and stabilise eastern Ukraine, saying it was “important to do everything” to put Minsk into effect.
Mr Poroshenko said: “Ukraine stands by Minsk. There is no alternative to Minsk.”
The German chancellor is a staunch proponent of preserving transatlantic sanctions on Russia until it and separatist militants uphold a lasting ceasefire and settlement. But German officials are concerned that if the US drops out of the sanctions regime, then the EU consensus on sanctions would also break. Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and Slovakia are among countries which have repeatedly questioned the policy.
Russia continues to deny claims that it is waging a proxy hybrid war against Kiev’s pro-western leadership by arming troops to fight alongside separatist militants in Ukraine’s east.
On Monday, Moscow praised the first phone conversation between Mr Putin and Mr Trump as a good start to improving bilateral relations, wrecked over Ukraine.
The call had been “good both from the political and from the human angle”, said Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister. It had reflected the mutual respect that had lacked in bilateral relations in recent years, and the two presidents had shown they wanted dialogue not based on “moralising” but on recognition of both sides’ national interests, he said.
Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s press aide, said it was possible a first meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Putin could happen before the G20 summit in early July.