KIEV: Separatist rebels killed seven Ukrainian soldiers in a bloody ambush in the restive east on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila), rattling efforts by Europe to step up a diplomatic push to resolve the escalating crisis on its doorstep.
The violence flared as German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was in Ukraine to push Kiev and pro-Moscow rebels to come together at the negotiating table after the East-West security body Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) drew up a roadmap aimed at easing tensions.
But the battle lines remained drawn, with fears that Ukraine could be threatened with collapse following weekend independence referendums in the eastern industrial provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk that have been rejected by Kiev and the West.
“In the next few days or weeks, the fate of the Ukrainian state will be decided,” Prime Minister Donald Tusk of neighboring Poland told reporters in Warsaw, adding that the European Union must “concentrate on the kind of help that will allow Ukraine to hold elections on May 25th.”
Russia, despite expressing support for the “extremely important” roadmap, said Kiev must halt its military operation in the east if rebels are to comply with the peace initiative.
And it accused Ukraine’s pro-West authorities of refusing “real dialogue” with the separatists.
The OSCE, which began life as a forum for East-West dialogue in the Cold War, said the initiative focuses on “restraint from violence, disarmament, national dialogue, and elections.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for roundtable talks in crisis-hit Ukraine to be as “representative” as possible, but warned there was no place for those who use violence.
Kiev is hosting a meeting on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) involving the government, parliament and regional leaders —but notably not any separatist representatives.
On the ground, the Ukrainian military suffered one of its bloodiest single days since the separatist insurrection in the east erupted.
Kiev said seven soldiers were killed in an ambush by rebels armed with heavy weapons between the insurgent strongholds of Slavyansk and nearby Kramatorsk, bringing to 16 the number killed since mid-April.
Also on Tuesday, rebels in Lugansk claimed their self-styled governor Valery Bolotov survived an “assassination attempt” after assailants opened fire on his car with automatic rifles.
Violence has raged for weeks in eastern Ukraine as government troops carry out what it describes as “anti-terrorist” operations against well-armed rebels who seized cities and towns in the chaos that followed the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych in February.
Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov insisted on Tuesday that the offensive would continue despite the Kremlin’s demands.
There had been fears that Putin would move quickly to annex the territories of Lugansk and Donetsk as he did with Crimea in March, despite Western outrage.