KIEV: Ukraine said more than a dozen servicemen were killed yesterday in an early morning clash with pro-Russian separatists, fuelling security concerns ahead of a presidential election on Sunday seen as crucial for its fragile democracy.
Kiev’s pro-Western government said its forces had also rebuffed an attempt by the separatists to enter its territory from Russia, and it called for an emergency session of the UN Security Council to discuss Moscow’s role in the violence.
The government hopes the election will stabilise Ukraine after mass street protests toppled Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich in February, but the separatists have vowed to prevent the poll going ahead in eastern towns where they have seized control.
The United States and European Union say they will impose broad sanctions on Russia if it tries to derail the election, billed as the country’s most important since the end of communism in 1991. Moscow, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March after Yanukovich’s fall, denies arming or training the rebels.
“The aim (of the separatist fighters) was to attack and seize the town of Volnovakha. Our troops defended the town ... but regrettably, under fire from mortars and grenade launchers and heavy gunfire, our boys were killed,” Interfax news agency quoted acting President Oleksander Turchinov as saying.
Turchinov said 13 servicemen had been killed. Authorities in the Donetsk region, where the attack took place, put the death toll at 16, without specifying whether they were all soldiers or also included separatists, and said 32 people were injured.
Top Ukrainian security official Andriy Parubiy said he expected more separatist violence in the coming days “because their whole concept is aimed at disrupting the presidential election”.
“I would like to appeal to all citizens of Ukraine, not only to those in the east: on Sunday ... we must all go and vote ... Going to the elections, holding the elections means defeating Putin,” Parubiy told a news conference.
Opinion polls suggest confectionery magnate Petro Poroshenko, a former ally of Yanukovich who later joined the protests against him and supports Ukraine’s tilt towards the West, will win the election, possibly in Sunday’s first round.
In Luhansk, Ukrainian border guards repelled an incursion by dozens of separatists armed with grenade launchers and rifles, the border service said. Several border guards were injured in the incident. Ukraine’s energy ministry said there had been “attacks by terrorists” on several coal mines in eastern Ukraine, forcing a suspension of production there.