SHAKHTARSK, Ukraine: New unidentified columns loaded with heavy weapons rumbled toward the pro-Moscow rebel stronghold in eastern Ukraine on Monday as fears grew of a return to all-out fighting in the war-torn region.
The White House expressed grave concern at reports of Russian military reinforcements in eastern Ukraine, warning that any separatist efforts to seize more territory would be a “blatant violation” of a ceasefire agreement.
Ukraine and the West blame Russian-backed separatist fighters using surface-to-air missiles for the catastrophe, while Moscow has pointed the finger at Kiev’s forces, in an incident that galvanized international shock over the chaos.
“We are very concerned by intensified fighting in eastern Ukraine, as well as numerous reports that Russian backed and supplied separatists are moving large convoys of heavy weapons and tanks to the front lines of the conflict,” US National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement.
Reflecting the growing unease, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said reports of military reinforcements in Ukraine’s separatist areas were a “very worrying development” and called on Russia to prevent further movement of “troops, weapons and equipment.”
She also called on all sides to show “restraint” and said Russia should work to find a peaceful solution while respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty.
On Monday, a special commemoration will be held in the Netherlands for the victims of one of the worst tragedies of the conflict; the downing of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 in July which killed all 298 people aboard, including 193 Dutch citizens.
The early hours of Sunday morning in Donetsk saw some of the fiercest combat since the September 5 signing of a frequently-violated ceasefire that halted all-out confrontations across most of the conflict zone, but failed to end constant bombardments at strategic hotspots.
An Agence France-Presse crew saw a convoy of 20 military vehicles and 14 howitzer cannons without number plates or markings driving through the rebel town of Makiivka on Sunday, in the direction of the nearby frontline around Donetsk.
Fears of total breakdown
Meanwhile the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) voiced concern on Saturday after its monitors witnessed unmarked columns of tanks and troop carriers moving through east Ukraine in territory held by pro-Russia separatists.
The sightings of armored columns came after Ukraine’s military said on Friday a large convoy of tanks and other heavy weapons entered the country from Russia across a section of border that has fallen under the control of rebel fighters.
Russia denies being involved in the fighting in the east.
However, it openly gives the rebels political and humanitarian backing and it is not clear how the insurgents could themselves have access to so much sophisticated and well-maintained weaponry.
The OSCE reports from the east fueled the fears of a total breakdown in the two-month truce, with the war having already killed some 4,000 people, according to UN figures.
In March, Russian soldiers without identification markings took over the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea. Moscow annexed the peninsula shortly after.
Ukraine’s military said on Sunday that three servicemen were killed and thirteen injured as shelling hit government positions around the region. Two Ukrainian policemen and one civilian were also killed in the fighting, the army said.
Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko risked heavy fire on Sunday morning as he toured the insurgents’ forward positions around the ruins of the Donetsk airport, where Ukrainian troops are battling fiercely to maintain a toe-hold, Russian outlet LifeNews reported.
“They continue to bombard our airport, nothing is changing,” Zakharchenko was filmed as saying.