Fighting flared anew in Ukraine three days before a presidential vote, with 16 soldiers killed near a checkpoint in the deadliest clash for the military since the secession campaign began after Russia annexed Crimea.
An attack by pro-Russian insurgents near Volnovakha, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Donetsk, left 16 servicemen dead, First Deputy Health Minister Ruslan Salyutin said in televised remarks. One soldier was killed and two injured in the Luhansk region, the Defense Ministry said.
“There’s a brutal war under way against our country,” acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said on parliament’s website. “Ukraine will never return to a post-Soviet neo-empire, which the Russian government dreams about.”
The conflict is taking a deadly turn after President Vladimir Putin said he’s easing the way for Ukraine’s May 25 election by pulling back Russian troops. The government in Kiev accused its eastern neighbor of seeking to destabilize the country before the ballot as Russia’s Foreign Ministry said holding the vote during a conflict will be “very difficult.”
Russian stocks declined for the first time in five days, with the Micex Index falling 0.7 percent from yesterday’s three-month high to 1,430.54. The ruble rose 0.1 percent, extending its gain since Putin’s incursion into Crimea started on March 1 to 4.6 percent.
Members of the Vostok Battalion, a pro-Russia militia, stand guard at an intersection in Donetsk, Ukraine.
“The armed separatists who are continuing to terrorize the people of Luhansk and Donetsk must not be allowed to deny Ukrainians their right to vote,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement condemning the attack near Volnovakha. “Despite this appalling provocation, we call on the Ukrainian government to continue its policy of restraint.”
Putin has made promises before to remove troops from along Ukraine’s border that went unfulfilled. Russia’s pledges “on pulling back troops are a bluff,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in a statement. NATO puts the number of Russian troops on the frontier at 40,000.
Yatsenyuk called for a United Nations Security Council session on the situation. The UN said yesterday 127 people have died from the violence in the country’s eastern and southern regions.
“We’ve only seen a small movement of forces,” U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top military commander, told reporters in Brussels today after two-day meeting of allied military chiefs. “The force that remains behind on the Ukrainian border right now is able to do exactly what it could do a week ago or two weeks ago. So nothing has changed.”
The U.S. echoed the assessment, with Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, telling reporters today that the U.S. has seen some movement of Russian forces away from the Ukraine border. He said it’s too soon to say if that constitutes a significant movement as the overall Russian force “remains capable.”
Several groups of armed militants escorting weapons and ammunition from Russia were prevented from illegally crossing the frontier by Ukrainian border guards, the Foreign Ministry in Kiev said in a statement. Russia is “choosing tactics to further aggravate the situation,” it said.
Helicopters were used by Ukraine’s military to repel an insurgent attack in the Donetsk region, Andriy Parubiy, head of Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Council, told reporters today. About 60 rebel fighters attacked the military in the Luhansk region, he said.
After a lull in fighting, the sound of gunfire and shelling was heard in Slovyansk and the surrounding district, the Donetsk governor’s office said in a statement today. An attack on an electricity substation damaged two transformers and cut power to nearby towns, it said.
Members of the Vostok Battalion, a pro-Russia militia, stand guard in an intersection in Donetsk, Ukraine.
Rebels used grenade launchers, machine guns and small arms to attack the checkpoint near Volnovakha as they tried to battle their way out of the encirclement, the Defense Ministry in Kiev said. Government troops beat back the assault, with the “ring of encirclement constantly shrinking,” it said.
Meanwhile, armed separatists seized four mines in the Luhansk region and demanded that their employees hand over explosives used to extract coal, the Energy Ministry said today.
Russia continues to violate Ukrainian airspace, Ukraine Border Service spokesman Oleg Slobodyan said in a phone interview today. A Russian military Mi-8 helicopter crossed the Ukrainian border at 9 p.m. local time yesterday and flew at a low height about 100 meters inside Ukrainian airspace in the Sumy region before leaving, he said.
Four trains with Russian military equipment and 15 IL-76 transport aircraft with troops on board were sent back from Ukraine’s border yesterday, according to a statement on the Russian Defense’s website. All troops will resume training at their permanent bases starting June 1, it said.
The Ukrainian authorities have said difficulties in conducting this weekend’s presidential election in mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine won’t undermine its legitimacy. Chancellor Angela Merkel has told German lawmakers she expects Russia to accept the result, two officials said.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier today said that while an election won’t take place in “some areas,” it’s necessary “to ensure that it does in most of the east and south of Ukraine.”