DONETSK, Ukraine: Kiev said on Monday said its forces were clashing with an armored 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.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian leader Vladimir Putin are under pressure to defuse the crisis when they meet for the first time in months alongside top European Union officials in Minsk on Tuesday.
A Ukrainian military spokesman told Agence France-Presse that border guards were battling “several dozen” armored vehicles that smashed through the border in the south and headed in the direction of the government-held city of Mariupol.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the report as Ukrainian and Western media disinformation, 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 seen government forces pin back struggling insurgent fighters.
A top 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 raging to the south of the city 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 controversial aid convoy into east Ukraine.
Russia sent cross-border tensions spiraling last week by unilaterally ordering over 200 lorries filled with what it said was aid to east Ukraine’s rebel stronghold Lugansk in a move that Kiev slammed as a “direct invasion.”
Foreign Minister Sergei 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 used by Moscow as a pretext to invade but Russia insists it just wants to help the stricken region.
Over 400,000 people have fled the fighting since April and residents in some rebel-held cities have been without water or power for weeks.
Hope for peace
The upcoming meeting between Poroshenko and Putin has been seen as a rare opportunity to de-escalate more than four months of fighting that has cost over 2,200 lives.
Poroshenko has pledged to “talk peace” with the Russian strongman but insists the withdrawal of pro-Kremlin forces is the only way to end the conflict in east Ukraine.
Kiev has accused Russia of ramping up arms supplies to the rebels as government troops have cut deeper into their territory while Moscow has demanded Ukrainian forces cease their punishing 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.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a bilateral ceasefire and tighter border controls during a visit to Kiev over 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.
Tale of two parades
Passions rose further after rebels on Sunday paraded dozens of captured soldiers past an angry crowd in the center of Donetsk in an event timed to undermine a military parade taking place in Kiev to mark Ukraine’s Independence Day.
Kiev’s defense minister blasted 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,” defense chief Valeriy Geletey said.
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 morale-boosting event in Kiev on Sunday, Poroshenko decried Russian “aggression” and said he was “convinced that the battle for Ukraine, for independence, will be our success.”