War fear as Russia sends tanks into east Ukraine

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Dozens of tanks, 16 howitzer cannons and 30 trucks of troops and equipment crossed from Russia into Ukrainian territory held by Moscow-backed rebels yesterday.

The column of vehicles crossed into the Luhansk region and headed towards the city of Krasnyi Luch, Colonel Andriy Lysenko, a military spokesman, told reporters at a briefing in Kiev.

A separate column of trucks, including three mobile radar units, passed into Ukraine via the border town of Izvaryne, he said. Yesterday, fighting continued in the region, despite a two-month-old ceasefire.

Ukraine and western states have consistently accused Russia of sending troops and hardware into the eastern Donbas region, where two separatist “people’s republics” have declared their secession.

President Putin denies support for the region, despite numerous reports of Russian vehicles crossing the rebel-controlled border and being spotted on territory controlled by the separatists.

Ukrainian government forces have been fighting rebel militia and alleged Russian forces in Donbas since April, when the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics were proclaimed.

A ceasefire between the two sides was signed in Minsk, Belarus, on September 5 and terms for withdrawal were agreed a fortnight later, but sporadic and at times fierce fighting has continued.

Mr Lysenko said that five Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and at least 16 other troops were wounded in hostilities in the past 24 hours.

Civilian casualties also continue to mount this week. Two teenagers were killed in Donetsk when a shell fell on a school sports field where they were playing football. The UN says more than 4,000 people have died in the conflict.

Last Sunday, the two separatist republics chose a leader and members of parliament in elections that were not recognised by Kiev or the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

It remains unclear whether Russia will move to annex the breakaway territories, as it did with Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said before the Donbas elections that Moscow would “of course recognise the results”.

However, after the vote, on Monday, Russia said that it “respected the will of the people” and that the elections gave separatist leaders a “mandate to negotiate with the central Ukrainian authorities and resolve through political dialogue all the problems that have accumulated over many months”.

The Kremlin was at pains yesterday to make clear it had not fully recognised the “people’s republics”. Yury Ushakov, an aide to Mr Putin, said that “respect” and “recognise” were “two different words”. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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