Government troops fought to gain control of the rebel-held city of Donetsk and a key highway in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, in battles that left 34 residents and nine troops dead in just 24 hours, authorities said.
The Ukrainian troops are trying to encircle Donetsk, the largest city still in rebel hands, and to drive the rebels out of the city of Luhansk. Several Donetsk neighborhoods have been hit with artillery fire in the last few days, and fighting on the outskirts of the city has become more intense.
The Kiev-backed administration in Donetsk said 34 local residents had been killed and 29 wounded as of noon Wednesday — a figure it said did not include any government troop deaths.
Earlier, a Ukrainian official said nine troops were killed and 22 wounded in overnight fighting in Ilovaysk, a town near Donetsk, as the government sought to retake a major railroad and a highway that leads to Russia.
Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security Council, said fighting continued in Ilovaysk on Wednesday even though government forces have gained overall control of the town.
Among those killed in Ilovaysk was a Ukrainian-American known by the nom de guerre Franko, said Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to the interior minister. He said Franko was a U.S. citizen who had a military background, lived in eastern Ukraine for the past 10 years and obtained Ukrainian citizenship before joining the battalion.
The situation in besieged Luhansk, a rebel stronghold just 12 miles from the Russian border, remained critical Wednesday as the government and rebels fought running battles in the streets, local authorities said.
Luhansk has been without electricity, running water or phone connections for 18 days, and as food grows scarce, residents are reported to be standing in lines to buy bread from bakeries with portable generators.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will host German Chancellor Angela Merkel this weekend in Kiev before meeting next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
The conflict, which began when street protests put a Western-leaning leadership in power in Kiev against Moscow’s wishes, has dragged relations between Russia and the West to their worst level since the end of the Cold War. It has triggered a round of trade sanctions and retaliatory measures that are hurting fragile Russian and European Union economies.
Officially, the Minsk meeting concerns relations between the European Union and a customs union involving Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, but Ukraine will top the agenda.
European officials say privately that they will keep up pressure on Putin not to support the rebels, but at the same time Ukraine has to be persuaded not to ruthlessly press home its advantage on the battlefield.
That could humiliate the Kremlin and force it into an unpredictable reaction, officials say.
Stefan Meister of the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations said Merkel would use her visit to Kiev to back Poroshenko and to test how flexible Kiev is willing to be to achieve a deal with Moscow.
“In order to get a compromise with Russia, you need movement from Ukraine. How prepared are they to do that at a time when they are on the offensive in the east, trying to establish facts on the ground?” Meister said. “I have the feeling Putin may be ready to talk, but he can’t lose face.”
Russian officials welcomed any European moves to bring Kiev — which they blame for what they call a humanitarian disaster in eastern Ukraine — to the negotiating table in earnest.
A senior Russian Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “We welcome any movement, any understanding by the West, especially Germany, that the situation cannot be resolved without solving the problem inside Ukraine, in the same way that pressure on Russia did not and does not make any sense.”