New battles break Ukraine ceasefire just hours after it was declared

Kremlin puts troops on combat alert as Ukrainian border guards come under attack from rebels and US slaps sanctions on top separatists

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 June, 2014, 5:10am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 June, 2014, 5:10am


Ukraine's military waged new battles yesterday with pro-Moscow rebels who rejected Kiev's unilateral ceasefire, while the government raised alarm over the Kremlin's decision to put troops across Russia on combat alert.

The resurgence of violence in the 11-week insurgency threatening to splinter the ex-Soviet nation came as Washington slapped sanctions on top separatist leaders and warned the Kremlin against sending forces into Ukraine.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared ready to continue sabre-rattling in the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War era, by ordering units from the Volga to western Siberia to conduct snap military drills.

"There is no ceasefire," a woman named Lila Ivanovna said just 4km southwest of the battle-scarred rebel stronghold city of Slavyansk.

"They were shooting last night and I heard mortar and machine gun fire at four this morning. Nothing has changed."

Ukrainian border guards said the militia used sniper fire and grenade launchers to strike one of their bases in the eastern Donetsk region, four hours after President Petro Poroshenko declared a unilateral halt to hostilities that have claimed more than 375 lives.

"Three soldiers were injured - one seriously - and equipment damaged," the border guard service said in a statement.

It added that Ukrainian troops had to return fire when the same militia unit mounted a second attack near a different Russian border crossing a few minutes later.

A spokesman for Ukraine's "anti-terrorist operation" confirmed the fighting around Slavyansk, while the defence ministry said one of its anti-aircraft bases was attacked by "50 men in camouflage".

But the separatist leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic told Russia's RIA Novosti state news agency that Slavyansk had absorbed a heavy air and artillery assault from Ukrainian troops.

Poroshenko declared the week-long unilateral ceasefire on Friday night while stressing that it "does not mean that we will not fight back against aggression toward our troops".

The order and simultaneous peace plan unveiled by the 48-year-old chocolate baron was branded an "ultimatum" by the Russian foreign ministry.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on a visit to Saudi Arabia yesterday that he was concerned Kiev's military campaign had only "intensified".

Poroshenko's attempts to resolve the country's worst post-Soviet crisis have also been complicated by a new deployment of Russian forces along parts of the border where the rebels mount most frequent attacks.

Putin appeared to be stirring tensions further yesterday by ordering troops stretching from the Volga region in central Russia to the Ural Mountains and parts of Siberia to go on "full combat alert" as part of an unannounced readiness check.

The Russian defence ministry said military exercises in the expansive region, whose western-most edge lies 400km east of Ukraine, would involve 65,000 soldiers along with 60 helicopters and 180 jets.

Ukrainian officials have told EU and G7 teams in Kiev they had evidence of 10 additional tanks and sealed trucks coming over the border close to the eastern city of Lugansk since Thursday.

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki noted that most of the equipment being gathered in southwest Russia was no longer used by its military.

"We believe that Russia may soon provide this equipment to separatist fighters," Psaki said.