KIEV: Ukrainian troops have retaken the strategically-important city of Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine, as they press on with their offensive to stamp out a pro-Russian rebellion, President Petro Poroshenko said.
“Ukrainian forces have raised the flag over the town council in Lysychansk,” the presidency said in a statement late on Thursday.
Poroshenko earlier asked parliament to pass a vote of confidence in the government on Friday after the shock resignation of premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk piled political uncertainty onto the crisis wracking the country.
The United States on Friday also said it had evidence Russian forces were firing artillery from inside Russia on Ukrainian troops, in what officials called a “clear escalation” of the conflict.
Operations were continuing to drive the remaining insurgents out of the town, the statement said.
Lysychansk—a city of around 105,000 some 90 kilometres northwest of the rebel stronghold of Lugansk—was seized by separatists in early April at the start of a bloody insurgency that has now claimed the lives of some 1,000 people, including the nearly 300 on board downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
The government offensive against the rebels has made significant progress since rebels unexpectedly fled a string of key towns earlier this month.
Government forces say they are now closing in on the major cities of Lugansk and Donetsk, where the bulk of the insurgent fighters have dug in and pledged to fight to the death.
Quit on protest
Yatsenyuk quit in protest on Thursday after the ruling European Choice coalition collapsed following the withdrawal of several parties, a move that paved the way for long-awaited parliamentary polls to be announced.
Ukraine’s cabinet on Friday elevated deputy prime minister Volodymyr Groysman—who has been coordinating Kiev’s response to the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 in east Ukraine— to the post of acting premier.
Pro-Western Yatsenyuk—who helped steer the country through upheaval since the ouster of Kremlin-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych in February—lashed out at the decision to pull the plug on the coalition as Kiev is struggling to end a bloody separatist insurrection tearing apart the east.
The break up of the parliamentary majority gives Poroshenko—who was elected in May—the right over the next month to announce a fresh parliamentary election, which has been on the cards since Yanukovych’s toppling.
Russian artillery fire
Washington on Friday said it had evidence Russian forces were firing artillery from inside Russia on Ukrainian troops.
Moscow is also planning to “deliver heavier and more powerful multiple rocket launchers” to the pro-Russian separatist forces in Ukraine, US deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
The evidence was based on “intelligence information” indicating arms were “continuing to flow across the border” into Ukraine since the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner with 298 on board, Harf said.
But she refused to reveal the evidence behind the allegation or give further information.
“They’re firing artillery from within Russia to attack Ukrainian military,” Harf told reporters.
Washington, however, was still looking into the downing of two Ukrainian fighter jets on Wednesday. Kiev has alleged the warplanes were hit by missiles fired from Russian territory.
The shelling by Russian forces against Ukrainian positions had been “going on for several days,” said Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren.
“It’s a clear escalation,” Warren told reporters.
The Pentagon did not specify the precise location of the Russian artillery units or the artillery fire.
The Russian shelling has taken place “within the last 14 days,” according to a statement issued by US intelligence agencies.
Russia has continued a troop build-up near the border of Ukraine and kept up deliveries of arms and equipment to separatists since the downing of the Malaysian airliner, US defense officials told Agence France-Presse.
The Russians have sent at least one battalion a week to the border area in recent weeks, raising the troop level to 15,000 forces, up from about 12,000 last week, said two defense officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“It looks like a steady increase,” one official said.
Military hardware has also continued to arrive at a large base set up near Rostov, which is used as a staging and training area before the equipment is transported to the rebels in Ukraine, according to defense officials.