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Russian troops 'directly involved' in Ukraine conflict

Washington and Kiev said on Thursday (Aug 28) that Russian troops were actively involved in the fighting tearing apart eastern Ukraine, raising fears of a direct military confrontation on Europe's eastern flank.

DONETSK, Ukraine: Ukraine and the West said on Thursday (Aug 28) that Russian troops were actively involved in the fighting tearing apart the east of the country, raising fears of a direct military confrontation betwen Kiev and its former Soviet masters. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko scrapped a trip to Turkey and called an urgent meeting of his security chiefs over what a top official described as a "direct invasion" by Russia.

NATO said at least 1,000 troops were on the ground supporting pro-Kremlin separatists who have been fighting against Kiev's rule since April, but Russia insisted none of its soldiers were on Ukrainian soil. The latest rapid-fire developments have sent alarm bells ringing in the United States and in Europe, where EU leaders are set to discuss the crisis on their doorstep at a weekend summit.

US officials accused Russian troops of being behind a lightning counter-offensive that has seen pro-Moscow rebels seize swathes of territory from government forces, dramatically turning the tide in the four-month conflict.

"The place for the president today is in Kiev," Poroshenko said, speaking of a "sharp deterioration ... as Russian troops have been sent into Ukraine." Kiev said Russian soldiers had seized control of a key southeastern border town and a string of villages in an area where fighting had been raging for days. "An increasing number of Russian troops are intervening directly in fighting on Ukrainian territory," the US ambassador to Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt wrote on Twitter.

A NATO official said the supply of arms to the rebels had also increased in both "volume and quantity". But Russia swiftly denied the allegations, with its envoy to the OSCE pan-European security body insisting: "There are no Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine."

Kiev had called on the West for urgent help after a rebel counter-offensive from the southeast border appeared to smash through an army blockade around the separatist stronghold of Donetsk and threaten the government-held port city of Mariupol. The gains by the separatist fighters come after weeks of government offensives that had seen troops push deep into the last holdout rebel bastions in Ukraine's industrial heartland.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin for having "deliberately unleashed a war in Europe" and called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting.

RUSSIAN SOLDIERS 'ON HOLIDAY'

A top rebel leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, admitted on Wednesday that Russian troops were fighting alongside his insurgents, but said they were on "holiday" after volunteering to join the battle. The spiralling tensions come only days after Poroshenko and Putin held their first meeting in three months on Tuesday but failed to achieve any concrete breakthrough despite talk of a peace roadmap.

The EU said it was "extremely concerned" about the escalating developments on its eastern flank and called on Russia to end its "border hostility". The United States and the EU have already imposed a series of punishing sanctions on Russia over the crisis, the worst standoff between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.

Kiev said Russian troops on Wednesday seized control of the key border town of Novoazovsk and a string of surrounding villages along the southeastern strip of the frontier. A volunteer pro-Kiev commander said government troops were surrounded in the key transport hub of Ilovaysk some 50 kilometres southeast of Donetsk and were running out of ammunition.

Ukraine's military also claimed a Russian battalion had set up its headquarters near a village in the same area. AFP journalists reported heavy shelling in Donetsk on Thursday, with local authorities saying 11 civilians had lost their lives in 24 hours.

On Wednesday, the journalists found signs of a hurried retreat by Ukrainian forces after they appeared to have abandoned a key road leading southeast from Donetsk to the Russian border. Russia has repeatedly denied it is involved in the insurrection in the former Soviet state, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday the Kremlin was "not interested in breaking up" Ukraine.

The United Nations estimates the conflict has killed over 2,200 people and forced more than 400,000 to flee since April.

'LARGE-SCALE MILITARY AID'

On Wednesday, Yatsenyuk said it was time for NATO to act, calling for "practical help and ... crucial decisions" when it holds a summit in Wales next week that will be attended by Poroshenko. Russia vehemently opposes closer ties between Ukraine and NATO. And concerns that Kiev could be drawn closer into the Western security alliance - and towards Europe - are seen as a key motivation behind Russia's actions in recent months.

Ukraine's ambassador to the EU also appealed for the bloc to agree on "large-scale" military assistance when European leaders meet on Saturday. Following his crunch meeting with Putin, Poroshenko had claimed that all sides "without exception" had backed a peace plan. Putin had insisisted that discussing any ceasefire was not Moscow's "business" but an internal Ukrainian affair.