DONETSK: Kiev’s security service on Monday said its army in the war-torn east has captured 10 Russian paratroopers on Ukrainian soil, ramping up tensions on the eve of crunch talks on the conflict.
Soldiers from the 98th airborne division based in central Russia were captured near the Ukrainian village of Dzerkalne, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) southeast of the rebel hub Donetsk, Ukraine’s security service (UBS) said in a statement.
“Investigators opened a criminal probe into illegal border crossing by Russian armed citizens,” it added.
The news comes just hours before Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is due to meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin for the first time in months alongside top EU officials in Minsk on Tuesday.
Ukraine’s Defence Minister Valeriy Geletey said the soldiers had been captured on Monday.
“Today Ukrainian armed forces captured many Russian soldiers,” Geletey wrote on his Facebook page.
“Officially they are at exercises in various corners of Russia. In reality, they are participating in military aggression against Ukraine” and their families know nothing about their true fate, he said.
“I am addressing the relatives of Russian servicemen: find out immediately where your loved ones are. Take them out of Ukraine, where they are being forced to die,” he added.
Kiev has long accused Moscow of stoking the separatist insurgency raging in its east but this is the first time Ukrainian authorities have claimed to take soldiers from Russia’s regular army captive.
Moscow has repeatedly denied any involvement in the rebellion in Ukraine, calling all evidence fabrication.
Earlier on Monday, Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said troops had halted a column of tanks and armoured personal carriers flying rebel flags from Russia heading towards the government-held port city of Mariupol.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the claims, saying “there has been more than enough disinformation about our invasion. No doubt some foreign newspaper will print that ‘news’ tomorrow”.
Meanwhile, Poroshenko on Monday dissolved Ukraine’s parliament and called early elections, accusing some lawmakers of supporting the rebellion in the east that has killed some 2,200 people in the past four months.
“Snap parliament polls are part of my peace plan,” the Ukrainian leader said, adding that a change of leadership was vital to stop the fighting, as pro-Moscow fighters launched a counter-offensive against Kiev’s forces after a string of setbacks.
“The current makeup of Verkhovna Rada supported (ousted former leader Viktor) Yanukovych,” Poroshenko said, accusing lawmakers of passing “dictatorial” laws under the former Moscow-backed president.
An AFP journalist witnessed heavy fighting to the south of Donetsk, the main rebel bastion in eastern Ukraine, where separatists said they had deployed fresh tanks and artillery.
Explosions rang out and smoke rose from towns to the south of the city. Ukraine’s military said four soldiers had been killed and 31 wounded in the past 24 hours.
The Kremlin also ratcheted up the pressure by announcing plans to send another aid convoy into eastern Ukraine “this week”.
Russia unilaterally sent about 230 lorries carrying what it claimed was 1,800 tonnes of humanitarian aid to the rebel-held city of Lugansk on Friday after accusing Kiev of intentionally delaying the mission.
Kiev condemned the move as a “direct invasion” and the West accused the Kremlin of a dangerous escalation in the four-month conflict.
But the trucks returned to Russia on Saturday apparently without incident.
Over 2,200 people have died and 400,000 fled their homes since April in fighting that has left residents in some besieged rebel-held cities without water or power for weeks.
“We would like to agree on the conditions to send the convoy on the same route with the same participation of Ukrainian border guards and customs officers as soon as possible,” Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow.
Putin and Poroshenko are to meet in a new push to try to end a crisis that erupted in eastern Ukraine after Russia unilaterally annexed Crimea in March.
“Everyone suddenly realised that the continuation of the conflict may lead to a full-scale catastrophe,” said editor of Russia in Global Affairs, Fyodor Lukyanov.
Poroshenko has pledged to “talk peace” with Putin but insists the withdrawal of pro-Kremlin forces is the only way to end the conflict threatening to tear apart the country on the EU’s eastern flank.
Kiev has accused Russia of boosting arms supplies to the rebels as government troops cut deeper into their territory. Moscow has retorted that Ukrainian forces must cease their punishing offensive.
Lavrov played down hopes for a major breakthrough in Minsk, saying only that the talks would “facilitate the exchange of opinions” about “efforts to start the political process to settle the political crisis”.
Both sides are under pressure from the international community to find a compromise.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a bilateral ceasefire and tighter border controls during a weekend visit to Kiev while stressing support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
She said 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 the Soviet Union.
Passions rose further after rebels on Sunday paraded dozens of captured soldiers past an angry crowd in Donetsk in an event timed to undermine a military parade taking place in Kiev to mark Ukraine’s Independence Day.