Poroshenko warns of ‘colossal threat’ of new Ukraine fighting
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned Thursday of the “colossal threat” of major clashes in eastern Ukraine where at least 26 people have died in renewed fighting between government forces and pro-Russian rebels.
Fresh clashes erupted near the rebel stronghold of Donetsk on Wednesday, in one of the worst outbreaks of violence since a European-brokered truce was agreed in February.
The upsurge in fighting has revived fears in Kiev that the separatists have used the lull since the truce to regroup and may be gearing up for a new push into government-controlled territory.
“There remains a colossal threat of resumption of large-scale fighting on the part of Russian terrorist groups,” Poroshenko said in his annual address to parliament, referring to the insurgents.
Poroshenko alleged that more than 9,000 Russian soldiers were now in east Ukraine to support the rebellion, adding that Moscow kept supplying rebels with new weapons.
The EU expressed alarm over the escalation, calling it “the most serious violation” yet of the February ceasefire.
And Germany’s foreign minister expressed “great concern” over the “serious violations” of the February truce, warning of the threat of military escalation.
“We must urgently aim to bring the situation under control,” said Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “The truce is fragile, the violations can lead to us again falling back into a state of military escalation.”
The Kremlin accused Kiev of seeking to torpedo the truce ahead of an EU summit in June which will discuss whether to extend sanctions against Russia set to expire in July.
“No doubt these provocations are being organised by the Ukrainian army,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
“We are seriously worried by this indeed.”
The hot-button issue of Russian sanctions is also expected to come up at a Group of Seven summit in Germany this weekend.
The United States, which has also hit Moscow with stinging sanctions, said it was disturbed by the new clashes, warning that if the crisis escalated Moscow would face further punishment.
France’s foreign ministry called for an immediate end to fighting.
The army on Wednesday accused pro-Russian forces of launching a large-scale attack on the settlement of Maryinka, west of Donetsk, in breach of the four-month-old truce brokered by the West.
A senior separatist commander, Eduard Basurin, said that 16 rebels and five civilians had died over the past 24 hours.
An estimated 38 civilians and 86 rebels had also been wounded, he told reporters.
Kiev authorities said that five soldiers had been killed and 39 wounded in the latest upsurge in fighting.
The fighting had died down on Wednesday afternoon and authorities said on Thursday they were clearing mines and unexploded shells.
“It’s quiet in Maryinka now,” Ukrainian military spokesman Oleksandr Paranyuk said.
Separatist forces denied that they had gone on the offensive, saying they had reacted to defend their people from a “genocide.”
-‘Constant threat’ to peace deal –
Speaking in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the peace deal faced a “constant threat” from the Ukrainian authorities.
“The February 12 Minsk agreements are under constant threat of breaking down because of the actions of the Kiev authorities who are trying to avoid fulfilling their obligations to establish direct dialogue with the Donbass,” Lavrov said, referring to the rebel-controlled territory.
Kiev and the West accuse Moscow of backing the Russian-speaking rebels with weapons, money and troops.
Russia denies that it is behind the fighting in Ukraine that has killed 6,400 people since April 2014.
The Kremlin has rejected the claims despite evidence to the contrary, including secret funerals of Russian soldiers.
Moscow has repeatedly accused Ukrainian authorities of discriminating against Russian speakers in the east.
Ukrainian leader Poroshenko said in his address that Kiev was ready “even today” to lift an economic blockade of rebel-held territories if authorities were allowed to resume control over the country’s eastern borders.
As violence flared in Ukraine, Russia’s ruble — already battered by the economic crisis brought on by Western sanctions and plunging oil prices — tumbled, falling by 3 percent against the dollar and euro on Wednesday to its lowest level in two months.
February’s ceasefire was agreed by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany after negotiations in Minsk in February.