Ukrainian servicemen guard a checkpoint near the eastern
Ukrainian town of Debaltseve. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
Ukrainian rebels are receiving new armoured vehicles and
fighters trained in Russia, with which they plan to
counter-attack against government forces, a separatist leader
said in a video released on Saturday.
The four-month conflict in eastern Ukraine has reached a
critical phase, with Kiev and Western governments watching
nervously to see if Russia will intervene in support of the
increasingly besieged rebels - an intention Moscow denies.
Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed
Donetsk People's Republic, said the rebels were in the
process of receiving some 150 armoured vehicles, including 30
tanks, and 1,200 fighters who he said had spent four months
training in Russia.
"They are joining at the most crucial moment," he said in a
video recorded on Friday (local time). He did not specify
where the vehicles would come from.
Moscow has come under heavy Western sanctions over its
annexation of Ukraine's Crimea and accusations it is
supporting separatists in east Ukraine with fighters, arms
and funds. Russia denies those charges.
Zakharchenko's comments came a day after Ukraine said it
partially destroyed an armoured column that had crossed the
border from Russia. The report triggered a sell-off in global
stocks, with markets fearful of open confrontation between
Russia and Western-backed Ukraine.
But Moscow made no threat of retaliation, instead saying it
was a "fantasy" that its armoured vehicles had entered its
neighbour's territory. In Washington, the White House said it
could not confirm that Russian vehicles had been attacked on
The rebels, who have ceded ground to government forces in
recent weeks, have been promising a counter-offensive for
several days but have yet to launch one.
Ukrainian native Zakharchenko took over from Russian citizen
Alexander Borodai last week and his combative comments will
probably dash hopes that changes at the top of the rebel
leadership might signal willingness to end hostilities.
Adding to the tensions, Russia and Ukraine have been at
loggerheads for days over a convoy of 280 Russian trucks
carrying water, food and medicine, which remained about 20 km
(12 miles) from the Ukrainian border, unmoved since Friday.
Officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross
said most procedures had been agreed by Russia and Ukraine
but the two sides still needed to figure out how to provide
security before the convoy moves ahead under the ICRC's
aegis. It was not clear when a deal on security could be
Russia says it is a purely humanitarian mission in support of
civilians in areas hit by the conflict, but Ukraine is
concerned it could serve as a Trojan Horse to infiltrate
military supplies or create a pretext for armed intervention.
The crisis has dragged relations between Russia and the West
to their lowest point since the Cold War and set off a round
of trade restrictions that are hurting struggling economies
both in Russia and Europe. The United Nations said this week
that an estimated 2,086 people had been killed, with nearly
The Finnish President, Sauli Niinisto, held talks in Kiev
with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, a day after
discussing how to settle the crisis with Russian President
"I do not see a great risk of an outright war," Niinisto
said. "My hopefulness is based on the fact that communication
is open, at least by a crack."
France said a meeting of Ukrainian, Russian, German and
French foreign ministers scheduled in Berlin on Sunday could
be a first step towards a peace summit.
A rebel Internet news outlet said on Saturday that separatist
fighters had killed 30 members of a Ukrainian government
battalion in fighting in Luhansk province, a rebel-held area
of eastern Ukraine adjacent to the Russian border.
A Ukrainian military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, contradicted
the rebel assertions. He said three Ukrainian servicemen had
been killed over the past 24 hours.
In the past few hours Ukrainian security forces had spotted
Russian drones and a helicopter crossing illegally into
Ukraine's airspace, Lysenko told a news briefing.
He denied Kiev's forces were firing artillery on Donetsk, one
of two rebel strongholds in the east, where a Reuters
reporter said the sound of explosions was audible in the city
centre on Saturday.
The Donetsk city administration said four people were killed
in shelling that destroyed homes and set several buildings on
MOMENTUM WITH THE ARMY
The momentum on the ground is with the Ukrainian forces, who
have pushed the separatists out of large swathes of territory
and nearly encircled them in Donetsk and Luhansk. Kiev says
it now controls the road linking the two cities.
Russia says the Ukrainian offensive is causing a humanitarian
catastrophe for the civilian population in the two cities. It
accuses Kiev's forces of indiscriminately using heavy weapons
in residential areas, an allegation Ukraine denies.
In the past week, three senior rebel leaders have been
removed from their posts, pointing to mounting disagreement
over how to turn the tide of the fighting back in their
Lysenko, the Ukrainian military spokesman, said he had
reports of rebel fighters abandoning their posts in Luhansk,
and preparing to leave Donetsk and seek safe haven in Russia.
"A mood of panic is spreading and rebels are trying to leave
through the small gaps that remain," he said.
In Donetsk, the red, blue and black flag of separatists was
flying on a pole in front of the headquarters. Ten people
armed with Kalashnikov rifles were standing on guard outside
the main entrance in mismatched camouflage.
"Why should we flee? People are still coming and filling our
ranks. Those who have lost their houses to Ukrainian
shelling, what else would they do but fight back?," said a
fighter who gave his name as Communist.