KIEV: Escalating clashes between pro-Kremlin separatists and Ukrainian forces yesterday killed 18 civilians and forced the new Western-backed leader to cancel a pivotal meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the World Cup in Brazil.
An explosive security crisis just outside the eastern border of the European Union that has claimed more than 550 lives and enflamed East-West ties threatened to spiral into an all-out civil war over the weekend.
Militias that the West and Kiev allege are being armed by the Kremlin used a Grad multiple-rocket system late Friday to mow down 19 Ukrainian soldiers and wound nearly 100 near the Russian border.
Further attacks killed 18 more troops and 26 civilians — 18 of them in what Kiev said were missile and other overnight rebel strikes staged across the eastern rustbelt — in violence that appeared to shatter any hope of a truce. Kiev-backed authorities said 12 people were killed and at least eight wounded in a suburb of the almost million-strong rebel stronghold of Donetsk.
Municipal workers in neighbouring Lugansk said six people had also died and seven were injured in various overnight incidents in the other separatist bastion of 425,000.
Separatist commander Igor Strelkov said Ukrainian forces responded to the latest surge in violence by sending several dozen tanks to the outskirts of Lugansk in preparation for a possible invasion of the Russia border city.
Russia’s RT state television showed several tanks moving along paved city streets of what the channel said yesterday were in Lugansk.
Ukrainian defence officials issued no immediate comment and the Russian state TV footage could not be independently verified. The civilian toll is one of the highest recorded over a two-day span in a three-month conflict that has threatened the very survival of the strategic ex-Soviet state. And the military losses have profoundly dampened emerging hopes in Kiev that its recent string of battlefield successes had finally convinced the rebels to sue for peace.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has vowed to kill “hundreds” of gunmen for every lost soldier and ordered an air-tight military blockade of Lugansk and Donetsk — both self-proclaimed capitals of their own “People’s Republics” that want to join Russia.
European leaders responded by joining forces with Putin in a bid to convince Poroshenko to put the breaks on violence first sparked by the February ouster of a Kremlin-backed leader and fanned by Russia’s subsequent seizure of Crimea.
The immediate hopes of a truce rested on a meeting between Putin and Poroshenko — the second since the Ukrainian president’s May 25 ballot — that seemed in the cards on the sidelines of the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro.
Putin was due in Rio as part of a Latin American tour and the Brazilian presidency said Poroshenko had also accepted an invitation on Friday. AFP