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Ukraine rebels vow to conquer more territory in war-torn east

24 january 2015, 14:38
 Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko. ©RIA Novosti
Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko. ©RIA Novosti

 Pro-Russian rebels on Friday vowed to conquer more territory in eastern Ukraine and ruled out peace talks after Kiev retreated from a long-disputed airport, casting aside Europe's latest push for a truce, AFP reports.

The defiant comments from Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko came as Ukraine renewed allegations of Russian army units fighting with rebels across the frontline dividing the war-torn country's industrial east.

Western nations have branded the gunmen's recent surge as a land grab in violation of a September truce, while Washington's UN envoy dismissed Russian peace efforts as nothing more than a Moscow "occupation plan."

Moscow strongly denies sending troops and weapons to help the rebels who now control swathes of eastern Ukraine, and accuses the West of orchestrating the downfall of the country's Russian-backed president last year.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the Ukraine government of ordering "large-scale combat operations" and blamed civilian deaths on Kiev.

The separatist chief of Donetsk, an insurgent stronghold and main industrial region in the heavily-Russified east of the ex-Soviet republic, said he would no longer pursue peace negotiations.

"Our side will no longer push for any more truce talks," Zakharchenko said. "We are going to advance to the very border of Donetsk province."

Sporadic shelling echoed across the rebel stronghold on Friday, and another three soldiers were killed as well as 50 wounded, the military said. At least one civilian was also killed, according to Donetsk city officials.

   New Russian offensive? 

 Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council chief Oleksandr Turchynov said "Russian terrorist groups" had launched a mass new offensive.

He accused Russia of "trying not only to establish control over the occupied territories, but to destroy the national identity and independence of Ukraine."

The fighting came after a wave of violence on Thursday, including a trolleybus shelling that killed eight people near Donetsk's city centre, far from the front line, underlining the increasing danger facing civilians. An earlier toll of 13 dead was reduced by officials.

Moscow and Kiev traded bitter blame over the tragedy, which occurred on the bloodiest day in the conflict since an increasingly irrelevant September truce, with more than 40 people reported killed.

Rebels also captured about 20 soldiers and paraded them in front of jeering locals at the scene of the bus shelling, where the handcuffed men were targeted with snowballs and glass.

Talks in Berlin on Wednesday saw the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine agree to try to arrange new negotiations between Kiev and separatist commanders in the coming days to calm the conflict that has killed more than 5,000 people since it broke out in April.

But Donetsk militias are riding a string of recent successes that include the ouster of Ukrainian forces from a disputed airport on the city's outskirts earlier this week.

The airport -- long stripped of its strategic importance by heavy shelling -- had become the symbolic prize of the conflict and had seen some of the heaviest fighting.

  'Point of no retreat' 

 One analyst said destruction of the airport had negated its importance but that the rebel offensive was raising frightening questions for Ukrainians.

"We know that the militants have expanded their territory by 500 square kilometres (since the September truce)," Kiev's Razumkov Centre analyst Oleksiy Melnyk told AFP.

"Now, many are asking: Where is the point beyond which you cannot retreat?"

The rebel advances comes s negotiators seek to define the confines of areas that will remain under temporary rebel control once the fighting ends.

Many in Kiev fear that the demarcation line will soon turn into an actual border splitting Ukraine from a resource-rich region that will eventually be folded into Russia.

The violence has threatened to spiral out of control after a December lull that instilled hope in EU leaders that the diplomatically and economically damaging war on the bloc's eastern frontier could finally be drawing to a close.

Moscow is already under heavy US and EU sanctions over its alleged actions in Ukraine, and Western diplomats in Kiev linked the past week's spike in attacks to a reported infusion of advanced Russian artillery and equipment into the war zone.

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