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Local residents watch as smoke rises during shelling in the town of Novoazovsk, eastern Ukraine on Wednesday.
Sergei Grits / AP
Russia accused of opening new front against Ukraine
Two days after Russia-Ukraine peace talks, rebel control of a strategic Ukraine town suggested new wave of conflict
August 27, 20144:00PM ETUpdated August 28, 2014 5:51AM ET
A day after Kiev and Western allies accused Moscow of launching a new military incursion in Ukraine's east, further fighting on Thursday, in which pro-Russian rebels appeared to be firmly in control of a strategic town, suggested that any resurgent hopes for an end to the five-moth long crisis were likely to prove illusory.
Separatists backed by Russian soldiers appeared to have control of the town of Novoazovsk in southeastern Ukraine, a pro-government militia fighter said on Thursday. Novoazovsk, which lies along the road connecting Russia to the Russia-annexed Crimean peninsula, had come under shelling for three days, with the rebels entering on Wednesday.
The loss of Novoazovsk, which was confirmed unofficially by a Kiev military source who did not want to be named, is a blow to government forces since it leaves vulnerable the big port city of Mariupol, further west along the coast.
Pro-Russian rebel forces said theyare seeking to create a land link between Russia and Crimea. If successful, it could give them or Russia control over the entire Sea of Azov and the gas and mineral riches that energy experts believe it contains. Ukraine has already lost roughly half its coastline, several major ports and significant Black Sea mineral rights in March when Russia annexed Crimea.
A military source said the separatist forces had also taken Savur-Mohyla, a hill east of Donetsk which gives strategic command over large areas of the territory.
The sudden reverses for the Ukrainian military appeared to confirm the arrival of Russian forces to support the separatists, who have in recent weeks been under pressure from government forces in their strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, the east's two main cities.
"There is military equipment in Novoazovsk which came across the border two days ago from Russia," the fighter, from the so-called Azov battalion which supports the Ukrainian army, told Reuters by telephone.
The actions coincided with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk's appeal to the international community on Thursday to penalize Russia unless its forces withdrew from Ukrainian territory.
At a government meeting, Yatseniuk asked the United States, European Union and G7 "to freeze Russian assets and finances until Russia withdraws armed forces, equipment and agents."
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said on Wednesday that a group of Russian soldiers had crossed the border in armored infantry carriers and a truck and entered the town of Amvrosiyivka, not far from where Ukraine detained 10 Russian soldiers on Monday.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the new military incursions on Ukraine's eastern border indicated a "Russian-directed counteroffensive" was underway.
"Information, which in recent hours has gained another hard-facts confirmation, is that regular Russian units are operating in eastern Ukraine," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said earlier Wednesday. "This information, coming from NATO and confirmed by our intelligence, is in fact unequivocal."
Ukraine and Western governments have repeatedly accused Russia of playing a direct role in the conflict, supplying troops and weaponry to the rebels. Russia denies the claims, but Moscow's stance is widely dismissed abroad.
Wednesday's incursion into Novoazovsk, the coastal town, was reported by the town's mayor and was the first time that fighting has reached as far south as the seacoast. It suggests that the rebels — who Ukraine, NATO and Western nations all say are being supported by Russia — have been both emboldened and reinforced.
It was not immediately clear how the rebels could have traveled to the southeast area, which is far from the main frontline further north and in an area controlled by the government. However, fighters could have easily come over the Russian border.
The assault on Novoazovsk, meanwhile, has forced Ukrainian government troops to spread their ranks thinner along the Russian border.
The new fighting comes after Putin and Poroshenko met in the Belarusian capital of Minsk for their first ever one-on-one meeting as presidents, which lasted over two hours. There was no indication of a swift resolution to the fighting that has dragged on since April and claimed at least 2,000 civilian lives – not including the 298 who perished when a Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down over rebel-held territory last month.
Poroshenko called the talks "overall positive" and said Putin had accepted the principles of his peace plan, which includes an amnesty for those in the east not accused of serious crimes and calls for some decentralization of power.
Putin, however, insisted that only Kiev could secure a cease-fire deal with the pro-Moscow separatists, saying the conflict was "Ukraine's business" because Russia was not in the fight.
Russia "can only help to create an atmosphere of trust for this important and necessary process," Putin said. "We in Russia cannot talk about any conditions for the cease-fire."
That line was called into further question on Monday, when Ukraine captured 10 soldiers from a Russian paratrooper division around Amvrosiyivka, the town near the Russian border. In videos posted on Facebook by Ukraine, one captive soldier said he did not know they were heading on a mission into Ukraine, while another said he did. The soldiers have been taken to Kiev for questioning — but Ukrainian officials say Russia has not contacted them about the soldiers.
Ukraine wants the rebels to hand back the territory they have captured in eastern Ukraine, while Putin wants to retain some sort of leverage over the mostly Russian-speaking region so Ukraine does not join NATO or the European Union. Putin has so far ignored requests from the rebels to be annexed by Russia.