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Kiev says Russian army vehicles seized in east

Ukraine said on Thursday (Aug 21) it had captured two armoured vehicles belonging to the Russian military as it pushed on with a brutal offensive to snap the back of the pro-Moscow rebellion in the war-torn east.

DONETSK: Ukraine said on Thursday (Aug 21) it had captured two armoured vehicles belonging to the Russian military in the war-torn east as checks began on a disputed aid convoy from Moscow parked up at the border.

Fighting between government forces and pro-Russian rebels raged in Ukraine's east as Kiev pressed on with an offensive to rout struggling insurgents ahead of a fresh round of diplomacy that will see the presidents of the two countries meet next week for the first time in months.

Some 300 Russian trucks - that Kiev fears could be used to help the insurgency - inched closer to crossing the border into rebel-held territory after Ukraine's customs officials said they had started processing the first of the lorries after a week of wrangling. Kiev has accused Moscow of stepping up arms supplies to east Ukraine's rebellion while the West fears that the Kremlin could be planning to invade as a last roll of the dice.

Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said two armoured vehicles from an elite Russian airborne division were seized along with documents of soldiers who had fled following a battle near the second-largest rebel stronghold of Lugansk. The Russian military ridiculed the allegations.

Moscow denies it is arming the insurgency but Kiev's claims will stoke tensions as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prepares for a meeting in Minsk next week with Russia's Vladimir Putin and EU officials.

On the ground, fighting continued in a string of key rebel towns as government forces refocused attempts to cut alleged supply routes from Russia to separatist-controlled areas.

Shelling in Donetsk left two people dead on Thursday, the latest fatalities in four months of conflict that has killed more than 2,200 people. In Ilovaysk, a key railway hub east of Donetsk, fierce fighting in the past two days has killed 16 servicemen in Ukraine's volunteer battalions, said interior ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko, calling for army reinforcements to be sent to the area.

Ukraine said one of its fighter jets was shot down on Wednesday close to Lugansk, where government forces claim to have regained control of several districts in recent days.

REFUGEES RISING

The United Nations on Wednesday increased its estimate of the number of people who have fled the fighting since April to at least 415,800. The region faces a growing humanitarian crisis as residents in beleaguered cities have been left without basic necessities for days.

In Lugansk, a city without communication, water or power for the past 19 days, authorities said residents were "on the brink of survival". The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) urged both sides to "take constant care to spare civilian population" after a small team of aid workers visited the city.

In the centre of Donetsk shocked residents struggled to cope with the damage to their houses after shelling tore through the area around the city's state-of-the-art football stadium. "I don't know who to turn to, I don't know who the government is anymore," Inna, a physics professor, told AFP. "Today it is the rebels but tomorrow Kiev could be back."

AID ON THE MOVE?

Meanwhile, the week-long dispute over a mammoth Russian aid convoy parked at Ukraine's border appeared to be nearing resolution. An ICRC official told journalists in Moscow that trucks could cross "hopefully tomorrow" as Ukrainian officials began long-delayed checks. 

Kiev and the West fear that an attack on the convoy in Ukraine could be used by Russia as a pretext to invade but Moscow insists it just wants to get help to the stricken population. The Red Cross has spent the past few days scrambling to nail down security guarantees from all sides for the convoy's journey.

ECONOMIC WOES

As fighting persists, Ukraine's battered economy has continued to tank with the national currency slumping to a record low against the dollar on Wednesday. Ukraine's Economy Minister Pavlo Sheremeta announced he was resigning after prolonged government disputes over how to fix the country's disastrous financial situation.

Sheremeta has been at loggerheads with premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who on Wednesday criticised the limited "speed and depth" of vital reforms central to Ukraine receiving a fresh tranche of US$1.4 billion (S$1.76 billion. €1 billion euros) in economic aid from the International Monetary Fund later this month.

The money is part of a broader US$27-billion rescue package to salvage the economy but questions remain over failures by the authorities in Kiev to push through key anti-corruption legislation. 

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