YANAKIYEVE, Ukraine — Seven Ukrainian troops were killed in overnight fighting in the restive east, Ukrainian officials said today, as clashes between government forces and pro-Russian rebels flared two days after the president said he would soon call a unilateral cease-fire.
Rebels were operating tanks in the region, a particular sore spot for Ukraine, which accuses Russia of letting the vehicles cross the border.
Vladislav Seleznev, spokesman for Ukrainian forces in the east, said the seven soldiers had been killed since Thursday and 30 injured in fighting against pro-Russian separatists outside the village of Yampil in the Donetsk region. He said 300 rebels were killed, but that could not be immediately verified.
An Associated Press reporter saw pro-Russian fighters moving in a column with two tanks and three armored personnel carriers near the town of Yanakiyeve in the direction of the town of Horlivka in the Donetsk region. The tanks flew small flags of a pro-Russian militia but otherwise had no markings. The fighters declined to say what they were doing, other than that it was a “secret operation.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has voiced concern about the Ukrainian military onslaught, while NATO on Thursday reported that Russia was resuming a military build-up at the Ukrainian border.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko discussed details of his peace plan in a telephone call to Putin on Thursday. Poroshenko’s office said he emphasized the need for introducing effective border controls and quickly releasing hostages.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russian officials were surprised at Western expressions of concern over the renewed troop buildup, saying it was merely a previously announced measure to tighten border controls.
“This is not a matter of some sort of concentration of forces, but of the strengthening of border controls of the Russian Federation,” Peskov was quoted as saying by the Itar-TASS news agency.
Separately, Putin’s foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, said the Russian president is committed to dialogue on Ukraine and is planning to have a phone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama in the coming days.
Ushakov also mentioned that Putin, on a visit to Austria next week, would be meeting with the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to discuss Poroshenko’s peace plan for Ukraine.
The U.N. says at least 356 people, including 257 civilians, have been killed since May 7 in eastern Ukraine.