Daniel Mihailescu / AFP / Getty Images

US says Russian tanks, rocket launchers in eastern Ukraine

State Department's announcement follows capture of Mariupol by pro-Kiev troops, seen as significant victory for Ukraine

The U.S. State Department said Friday it is “confident” that tanks seen entering eastern Ukraine in recent days came from Russia, which the department said has also sent rocket launchers to pro-Moscow separatists.

Rebels had earlier said the tanks came from a Ukrainian military stockpile.

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“We assess that separatists in eastern Ukraine have acquired heavy weapons and military equipment from Russia, including Russian tanks and multiple rocket launchers,” Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman for the State Department, said in a statement.

“Ukraine’s interior minister said three tanks crossed the border from Russia yesterday,” Harf said. “Internet videos showed this same type of tank that departed southwest Russia moving through multiple cities in eastern Ukraine.”

Harf added that Internet video has shown rocket launchers, which the department believes to have originated from the same deployment site as the tanks in southwest Russia, traveling through the Ukrainian city of Luhansk.

Earlier Friday, Ukrainian government forces were said to have retaken the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol from pro-Russia separatists in heavy fighting, and to have regained control of a long stretch of the border with Russia.

These advances would mean significant victories for Ukraine’s pro-European leadership, which is fighting to hold the former Soviet republic of 45 million people together. An armed separatist rebellion began in eastern Ukraine in April. The United States and other Western powers have accused Russia of orchestrating it.

"At 10:34 a.m. the Ukrainian flag was raised over City Hall in Mariupol," Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on Facebook, less than six hours after the attack began on the city of 500,000, Ukraine's biggest Azov Sea port.

A ministry aide said the government forces stormed the rebels after they were surrounded and given 10 minutes to surrender. At least five separatists and two servicemen were killed in the battle before many of the rebels fled.

Mariupol, which has changed hands several times in weeks of conflict, is strategically important because it lies on a major road linking the rest of Ukraine to the southeastern border with Russia, and steel is exported through the port.

Avakov said government forces had won back control of a 75-mile stretch of the border that had fallen to the rebels, but it is not clear who controls other parts of the nearly 1,000-mile border with Russia.

The rebels, who have taken over several towns and cities and want eastern Ukraine to become part of Russia, confirmed five of their fighters were killed in the fighting for Mariupol.

Avakov said national guard, Interior Ministry and special forces units were involved in the battle.

A Ukrainian defense analyst, Dmytro Tymchuk, said four Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and 31 wounded in fighting in other parts of eastern Ukraine in the past 24 hours. The total death toll is unclear, but several hundred people have been reported killed in clashes this year in Kiev and in the east.

Gas talks to resume

Pro-Russian rebels rose up in the Russian-speaking east and southeast after Moscow annexed Crimea in March after the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich, who had triggered protests by spurning trade and political pacts that would have deepened ties with the European Union.

The new president, Petro Poroshenko, intensified the military operation against the rebels but is also trying to win support for a peace plan.

Rebel leaders have not responded to his suggestion that they could be invited to talks if they lay down their arms, and rebels in the field have scoffed at the idea of giving up their weapons, saying they do not trust him.

Poroshenko's aides say progress has been made at initial meetings with a Russian envoy, and the threat of an imminent Russian invasion has receded, but talks on solving a natural gas pricing dispute with Russia have stalled.

European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger, who is brokering the gas talks, said he hoped they would resume on Saturday.

The sides disagree over how much Ukraine should pay for its gas, and Russian state gas exporter Gazprom has threatened to shut the pipes to Kiev if it does not start paying billions of dollars in debts by Monday. This could disrupt supplies to the EU because it gets about half its gas imports from Russia, half of them via Ukraine.

But Oettinger said in Brussels, "I am optimistic the three parties will do all to avoid a disruption."

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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