Ukrainian army reports gains in eastern Ukraine
DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) Government forces and Russia-backed rebels were each trying to make gains in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday ahead of long-anticipated peace talks.
The intense fighting, which the U.N. says has killed more than 5,300 people since April, comes ahead of a crucial summit including Western leaders on Wednesday as well as peace talks later Tuesday.
The volunteer Azov battalion said on social media on Tuesday that it captured several villages northeast of the strategic port of Mariupol, pushing the rebels closer to the border with Russia.
Rebel military spokesman Eduard Basurin said in a televised news conference on Tuesday that the fighting in that area is continuing and that the rebels have not retreated.
The rebels reported advances, too. Basurin said late Monday that they have surrounded the railway hub of Debaltseve, the focus of fierce fighting in the past weeks, cutting it off from a major highway. A video posted online by a rebel-sympathizing website showed the separatists moving along the highway while the bloodied bodies of Ukrainian soldiers lay on the side of the road.
At least seven Ukrainian troops were killed overnight in the east, Ukrainian military spokesman Anatoliy Matyukhin said on Tuesday. In the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, which comes under constant shelling, two civilians were killed and 12 injured.
The fierce fighting and a mounting death toll comes amid renewed efforts to work out a peaceful solution in a conflict that has displaced at least 1 million people and left the powerhouse of the Ukrainian economy in ruins.
Representatives of Ukraine, Russia, rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are meeting for long-anticipated talks later on Tuesday to lay the groundwork for a meeting on Wednesday between the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France.
The Kremlin has warned the West ahead of the talks against sending weapons to Ukraine or putting pressure on Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the Russian News Service radio station on Tuesday that any talk about imposing new sanctions on Russia or arming the Ukraine government would destabilize the situation in Ukraine.
The talks in Minsk on Tuesday were tentatively scheduled for 6 p.m. local time (1600 GMT), the Belarusian foreign ministry said.
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Yuras Karmanau in Minsk, Belarus, contributed to this report.