Ukrainian forces pierced a key rebel bastion as fresh claims that rocket launchers had come from Russia stoked tensions Sunday ahead of talks between Kiev and Moscow’s top diplomats.
The foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France gathered for a snap meeting in Berlin, after Western leaders had scrambled frantically to contain the crisis in Ukraine.
Kiev’s military said it hoisted the national flag over a district police station in a northeast suburb of the second-largest rebel bastion of Lugansk after a fierce battle with pro-Russian separatists Saturday.
A push into the city limits of the stricken 420,000-strong industrial hub would be a major breakthrough for government forces after four months of fighting that has claimed more than 2,100 lives and brought the region to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Ukraine also ramped up the stakes before the talks in Germany by alleging another military convoy including three Grad rocket systems crossed over from Russia.
The fresh claims come as a furore still swirls over Kiev’s earlier boasts that it destroyed part of a Russian armoured convoy that breached the frontier Thursday.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said Sunday’s talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov would “not be easy” as Germany also demanded that Moscow clarify rebel claims that they had received hundreds of fighters trained in Russia to bolster their flagging insurgency.
“It is important to stop the flow of weapons and mercenaries from Russia,” Klimkin wrote on Twitter Sunday.
Russia earlier dismissed claims that it had sent in hardware as “fantasies”, as it again denied persistent allegations by the West that it is arming the rebels.
– Aid checks to start? –
Meanwhile, Russia and Ukraine appeared to edge closer to agreeing a deal over a mammoth Russian aid convoy parked near the border as Ukrainian officials prepared to inspect the first of some 300 lorries.
An AFP journalist saw 16 trucks drive from a parking lot where they have been idling since Thursday to a Russian border post some 30 kilometres (20 miles) away.
The West and Kiev fear the convoy could be a Trojan horse to help the rebels in eastern Ukraine, or provide Moscow with an excuse to send in the 20,000 troops that NATO says it has massed on the border.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is overseeing the aid delivery, has said Russian and Ukrainian officials agreed on procedures to check the cargo — supposedly bound for Lugansk — but insisted that “security guarantees” are still needed on how the vehicles could cross rebel-held territory.
An AFP crew saw a column of black smoking rising from across the Ukrainian side of the border as the Russian trucks approached Sunday.
President Petro Poroshenko told US Vice President Joe Biden on Saturday that the separatists had yet to grant safe passage for the aid.
Russia’s foreign ministry has repeatedly demanded that Kiev cease fire in order for the aid to reach residents of blighted cities in eastern Ukraine who have been stuck for days without water or power.
– Warplane shot down –
Around the region fierce clashes continued between government and rebels, with Ukraine’s military saying a MiG fighter jet was shot down not far from Lugansk and the pilot parachuted to safety.
Lugansk has been the scene of some of the heaviest clashes, and local authorities said that power and water were not working for a 15th day running in the increasingly deserted city.
The United Nations says more than 285,000 people have fled the fighting in the east.
Authorities in the besieged main rebel city of Donetsk said shelling killed 10 civilians and wounded eight in 24 hours as government forces tightened the vice on rebels hunkered down there.
An AFP journalist continued to hear the rumble of mortar fire around the mining centre on Sunday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Moscow to “clarify” bragging by a top separatist leader in the city that troop reinforcements trained across the border had arrived to prop up the ailing insurgency.
Alexander Zakharchenko, “prime minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a video posted online Saturday that rebel forces had welcomed 1,200 personnel “who have received four months of training on Russian territory” as well as 150 items of military hardware, including tanks.