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Dozens killed in Ukraine as army fights to shatter rebels

Fierce fighting between government forces and pro-Russian rebels left dozens of civilians dead on Wednesday (Aug 20) as Ukrainian troops pushed on with a bloody offensive to break the insurgency in the east of the country.

DONETSK, Ukraine: Fierce fighting between government forces and pro-Russian rebels left dozens of civilians dead on Wednesday (Aug 20) as Ukrainian troops pushed on with a bloody offensive to break the insurgency in the east of the country.

Deadly battles to crush the ailing rebellion appeared to intensify ahead of a fresh round of diplomatic haggling that will see the presidents of Russia and Ukraine sit down next week for their first meeting in months.

Clashes in Donetsk region, one of the two separatist areas, have killed 34 civilians since Tuesday, regional authorities said, as troops reclaimed another town from the rebels. In the city of Makiyivka, adjoining the main rebel bastion Donetsk, residents were woken up by shelling in the early hours of Wednesday. The clashes also killed nine servicemen overnight, said security spokesman Andriy Lysenko.

The renewed offensive comes as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko gears up for talks with Russia's Vladimir Putin next week over how to end the conflict, which has killed about 2,200 people over the past four months. Poroshenko this week said the army was regrouping to continue its push on the separatist hubs of Donetsk and Lugansk and to fragment the rebel-held territory to stop the flow of weapons from Russia.

"Both (Kiev and Moscow) are trying to improve their starting positions," said political analyst Oleksiy Golubutskyi. "If Ukraine manages to gain control over Lugansk or even Donetsk before these talks, then the issue of demilitarising them disappears."


Ukraine's National Guard said it had wrested back control over on the town of Ilovaysk, a key railway hub some 45 kilometres (30 miles) east of Donetsk. In besieged Donetsk, authorities said water supplies had been restored after fighting cut power to a filtering station over the weekend.

Kiev claims Moscow is ratcheting up arms flows to help the separatists as Ukrainian forces have pushed deeper into dwindling rebel territory. Western powers also fear Putin could be preparing to send in the 20,000 troops NATO says he has massed on the border as a last role of the dice.

A Ukrainian military spokesman could not confirm claims from a commander in the field Tuesday that a massive convoy of Russian armour entered the second-largest insurgent city of Lugansk. Ukrainian forces have said they have pushed deep into Lugansk over the past few days in what could be a major breakthrough if confirmed.

The head of Kiev's military operations around the city told local television that tanks, Grad rocket launchers, artillery and armoured vehicles were seen entering the city after crossing over from Russia. "It had about 1,200 people, wearing Russian uniforms," commander Igor Voronchenko told channel.

Security officials in Kiev, however, said they had no information about the convoy in Lugansk, a city where residents have endured over two weeks without water and food and authorities have warned of possible infectious epidemics.

Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko at the weekend boasted his troops had received 1,200 fighters trained in Russia along with heavy equipment, but Moscow has flatly denied it has sent any support across the frontier.


The West has accused Moscow of helping out the rebels and NATO leadership on Monday said Russia was "resorting to a hybrid war," which included "secret commandos and smuggled missiles".

Nearly 300 Russian lorries with humanitarian aid have remained parked up for almost a week not far from the border with Ukraine's war-torn Lugansk region as haggling continues over letting them cross. Kiev fears that the convoy may be attacked on rebel territory and further destabilise the situation giving Moscow a pretext for invasion.

The Russian foreign ministry said Wednesday that Moscow agreed with the Red Cross that the sides were ready for the convoy to "begin movement" and that a group of Red Cross officials had already departed "to move along its supposed route." A Red Cross representative at the border crossing Galina Balzamova however told AFP that she has "no information on the advance team going to Ukraine."

Lorries of the Russian humanitarian convoy wait not far from a checkpoint at the Ukrainian border (AFP/Dmitry Serebryakov)

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