Russia plays down hopes for breakthrough at Minsk talks as tensions rise with plans to send second aid convoy into Ukraine.
By Agence France-Presse in Donetsk. Rebels parade captured soldiers in Donetsk while Kiev marked Ukraine’s independence day. Photograph: Xinhua /Landov/Barcroft Media.
Ukraine’s government has said its forces have clashed with an armoured column that crossed the border from Russia as Moscow ramped up tensions ahead of crunch talks by pledging to send in a new ‘aid’ convoy.
The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, are under pressure to defuse the crisis when they meet for the first time in months alongside top EU officials in Minsk on Tuesday.
A Ukrainian military spokesman told AFP border guards were battling “several dozen” armoured vehicles that crossed the border and headed in the direction of the government-held city of Mariupol.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, dismissed the report as disinformation by Ukrainian and western media, telling a Moscow news conference: “I haven’t heard about it, but there has been more than enough disinformation about our invasion. No doubt some foreign newspaper will print that ‘news’ tomorrow.”
If confirmed, the incursion could represent a dangerous push into territory in the Donetsk region under Ukrainian control after a brutal offensive by Kiev had led to government forces pinning back insurgents.
A rebel chief on Sunday announced a counter-offensive to the south of the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk and claimed to have deployed fresh tanks and artillery.
AFP journalists witnessed heavy fighting to the south ofDonetsk with the sound of explosions ringing out and smoke rising from towns to the south.
While fighting raged on the ground, Moscow ratcheted up the pressure further by saying it would send another aid convoy into eastern Ukraine.
Russia last week sent more than 200 lorries filled with what it said was aid to the rebel stronghold of Lugansk in a move characterised by Kiev as a “direct invasion”.
Lavrov announced that Russia wanted to send a new convoy this week and had appealed to Kiev to help facilitate the delivery after the first batch of lorries returned on Saturday.
Kiev and the west fear that the aid initiative could be a gambit to bolster the ailing insurgency or be used by Moscow as a pretext to invade, but Russia insists it just wants to help the stricken region.
More than 400,000 people have fled the fighting since April and residents in some rebel-held cities have been without water or power for weeks.
The upcoming meeting between Poroshenko and Putin has been seen as a rare opportunity to de-escalate tensions more than four months of fighting that has cost more than 2,200 lives.
Poroshenko has pledged to “talk peace” with the Russian president but insists the withdrawal of pro-Kremlin forces is the only way to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Kiev has accused Russia of increasing arms supplies to the rebels as government troops cut deeper into their territory while Moscow has demanded Ukrainian forces cease their offensive.
Lavrov played down hopes for a major breakthrough in Minsk by saying only that the talks would “facilitate the exchange of opinions about the situation concerning efforts to start the political process to settle the political crisis”.
International pressure is high on both sides to compromise as the crisis has sent east-west tensions soaring to their highest point since the end of the cold war.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, called for a bilateral ceasefire and tighter border controls during a visit to Kiev at the weekend while stressing support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
She said later in an interview she wanted to find a way out of the crisis “that doesn’t harm Russia” with the EU and US already having slapped the harshest economic sanctions on Moscow since the collapse of communism.
Passions rose further on Sunday after rebels paraded dozens of captured soldiers in front of an angry crowd in the centre of Donetsk in an event timed to undermine a military parade taking place in Kiev to mark Ukraine’s independence day.
Kiev’s defence minister, Valeriy Geletey, criticised the rebels for failing to respect “the laws of war and humanity”.
“This is a challenge not just to Ukrainian society but to the world.”
Lavrov stirred controversy further by saying that he “didn’t see anything close to what could be considered as humiliating” in images of the parade.
Speaking to a crowd of thousands at the independence day celebrations in Kiev on Sunday, Poroshenko decried Russian “aggression” and said he was “convinced that the battle for Ukraine, for independence, will be our success”.