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Rebels kill 9 Ukraine soldiers ahead of vote

Separatist rebels firing mortar shells and grenades killed at least nine Ukrainian soldiers in the restive east on Thursday, dealing a heavy blow to the beleaguered government just three days before a crunch presidential poll.

KIEV: Separatist rebels firing mortar shells and grenades killed at least nine Ukrainian soldiers in the restive east on Thursday, dealing a heavy blow to the beleaguered government just three days before a crunch presidential poll.

The attacks were the deadliest for the military since it launched an offensive six weeks ago against a pro-Moscow insurgency that is threatening to tear the country apart.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia of trying to "escalate the conflict" and disrupt Sunday's vote, calling on the UN Security Council to hold an urgent meeting on the crisis.

He charged that the Kremlin's announcement of a troop withdrawal from the border was merely a "bluff", saying that even if the soldiers were moving away, "armed terrorists" were still infiltrating Ukraine.

Western pressure is mounting on Russia not to meddle in the snap election, seen as crucial to prevent all-out civil war erupting on Europe's eastern flank.

Russia set Western nerves on edge when it massed some 40,000 troops on the border, raising fears of an invasion into eastern Ukraine after its seizure of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday he has seen some evidence of "limited Russian troop activity in the vicinity of the border with Ukraine that may suggest that some of these forces are preparing to withdraw".

But rebels in Ukraine's heavily-Russified eastern industrial regions of Donetsk and Lugansk are showing no signs of scaling back resistance to what they regard as an illegitimate government in Kiev.

The Ukrainian defence ministry said the worst of the two overnight attacks saw the insurgents blow up a military vehicle after volleying mortar shells and grenades at a roadblock set up by government troops near the Donetsk region town of Volnovakha.

Eight men were killed and another 17 wounded.

Another soldier was killed and two injured in a similar strike near Rubizhne in Lugansk.

Kiev's interim government launched its so-called "anti-terrorist" operation in mid-April aimed at crushing the rebels who have seized more than a dozen eastern cities and towns and declared sovereignty in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.

An AFP toll compiled through UN and Ukrainian government sources puts the number of deaths suffered in fighting across the east since mid-April at around 140.

President Vladimir Putin -- his government wary of devastating sanctions threatened by Washington and its European allies -- has so far refrained from recognising the legitimacy of the rebel republics.

But Putin rejects the legitimacy of the pro-Western team that toppled a Moscow-backed president in February on the back of a massive wave of street protests.

And he has given only the most grudging backing for an election that is all but certain to bring a pro-Western president to power who will seek to fold the nation of 46 million more fully into Europe and break for good its historic dependence on Russia.

"What is important is not the election itself," Putin said on Thursday during a visit to China.

"What is important is that (Kiev) repairs relations with the regions so that people start feeling like full-fledged citizens again," he said.

US Vice President Joe Biden warned Putin that Russia's economy -- already approaching recession -- would suffer immediate consequences should Russia be judged to have interfered in the vote.

"If Russia undermines these elections on Sunday, we must remain resolute in imposing greater costs," Biden told reporters in Bucharest on Wednesday.

Ukraine's interior ministry said it is mobilising more than 55,000 police and 20,000 volunteers to ensure that Sunday's presidential ballot goes off smoothly, despite fears it will be difficult to organise in the east.

"I appeal to all Ukrainians not only to go and vote but to help others go and vote, to prevent people from preventing others to vote," Wolfgang Ischinger, the mediator for an OSCE-sponsored peace plan for Ukraine, told reporters on Thursday.

Rebel leaders have vowed to disrupt the vote in Donetsk and Lugansk, the heartland of Ukraine's Soviet-era industrial rust belt that churns out more than 15 percent of the country's economic output.

Armed separatists on Thursday seized four coal mines in the Lugansk region, and demanded that its workers supply them with explosives, the Ukrainian energy ministry said.

Earlier Thursday, the self-proclaimed leader of Lugansk Valery Bolotov proclaimed martial law and called for Putin to send peacekeeping forces that could help avert a "humanitarian catastrophe".

"The Ukrainian forces are demoralised and are pleading for negotiations," Russia's RIA Novosti state news agency quoted Bolotov as saying.

Sunday's poll pits the overwhelming favourite Petro Poroshenko -- a 48-year-old confectioner whose chocolate factories have been shuttered in Russia on dubious health and safety grounds -- against nearly 20 challengers including the divisive nationalist ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko.

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