DONETSK: Fierce battles on Ukraine’s porous eastern border left 15 government troops dead as fears of a possible Russian invasion swirled yesterday despite Nato urging Moscow to withdraw its troops along the frontier.
International tensions also rose as Western countries slammed a Russian food embargo imposed as revenge for sanctions slapped on Moscow over its backing for insurgents in Ukraine.
The renewed violence came after Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned Moscow to “pull back from the brink” and as Western countries warned that Russia could be preparing to send troops across the border in the guise of a humanitarian mission.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his national security council yesterday to discuss the situation in eastern Ukraine, especially the “massive humanitarian catastrophe” in the region.
Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev vowed that Moscow was trying its best “to de-escalate tensions”, but Kiev said its positions continued to come under fire from Russian territory.
Ukraine’s military said seven soldiers and eight border guards were killed over the past 24 hours as a bloody three-day battle with pro-Russian rebels forced several government units to retreat from the border in the southeast of the war-torn Lugansk region.
A journalist meanwhile heard renewed sporadic shelling in the main insurgent bastion of Donetsk.
The centre of the one-million strong city has become a new battleground in the fighting, coming under sustained shelling for the first time on Thursday, with mortar fire killing at least three civilians and hitting a hospital.
But the rebels, believed by the West to be backed by Russia, have not stepped back in the face of a fierce government assault.
The new prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko admitted that the situation was “difficult and tense” but said “the troops’ morale is strong.”
Over 1,300 people have been killed and 285,000 forced to flee their homes over four months of what the Red Cross has designated a civil war in eastern Ukraine.
Local authorities have warned of an impending humanitarian disaster, as some areas have been left without power or water for days, and fuel and food were running short.
Aside from the 15 killed, 79 soldiers were injured in the east in the past 24 hours, Ukraine’s military said yesterday.