Ukraine crisis: Russia pressed over fresh fighting

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionPro-Russian rebels enter the strategically-vital port of Novoazovsk, opening a new front in the fighting

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has demanded an explanation from Russia's President Vladimir Putin amid reports that Russian troops have launched an incursion into south-east Ukraine.

Ukraine said Russian forces had crossed the border and were supporting rebel attacks. The rebels have opened a new front near the port of Mariupol.

The US said it suspected a Russian-directed counter-offensive was ongoing.

Russia has repeatedly denied arming or covertly supporting the rebels.

The BBC's Barbara Plett Usher in Washington says the suspicion is that Moscow is opening a new front to divert Ukrainian forces from the besieged cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, where they have made significant advances against pro-Russian separatists.

However, Denis Pushilin, a rebel leader in Donetsk, told a news conference that Russia was not involved in the current offensive.

"If Russia entered into the war the counter-offensive would already be in Kiev. For now, we do without outside help," he said.

He added that the rebel forces were receiving more volunteers, some from as far away as Serbia.

Reports from journalists and military on the ground suggest that the town of Novoazovsk on the Sea of Azov has been captured by the rebels.

They are now thought to be heading towards the port of Mariupol.

The port has until now been peaceful and cut off from rebel positions.

Rebels have been trying for weeks to break out of an area further north in the Donetsk region where they are almost encircled.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Ukrainian forces are being deployed to help defend the southern city of Mariupol
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Shelling is continuing in the city of Donetsk hitting buildings including this school
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Railway lines in eastern Ukraine have been destroyed in the fighting

Analysts say the separatists could also be seeking a land link between Russia and Crimea, which also would give them control over the entire Sea of Azov.

Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in March.

The reports of renewed fighting came just hours after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko promised a roadmap for peace in the east.

He spoke after holding his first direct talks on the crisis since June with Mr Putin.

In a phone call with the Russian president, Mrs Merkel said reports of a Russian military incursion into Ukrainian territory had to be cleared up, her spokesman said.

"The latest reports of the presence of Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory must be explained," said Steffen Seibert.

"She [Mrs Merkel] emphasised Russia's major responsibility for de-escalation and watching over its own frontiers."

The Kremlin confirmed the phone call but gave no details.

A senior Nato diplomat said Russian support for the separatists was becoming increasingly open.

The diplomat, speaking to reporters in Brussels on condition of anonymity, said: "I think there's a shift here that we may be witnessing, very recently, from largely covert, ambiguous, deniable support to what appears increasingly to be flat-out, overt and obvious (support) and with the only form of ambiguity being that the Russians... claim it is not happening."

War in eastern Ukraine: The human cost

  • At least 2,119 people had been killed and 5,043 wounded since mid-April, a UN report on 7 August said
  • 951 civilians have been killed in Donetsk region alone, the official regional authorities said on 20 August
  • Official casualty counts only record certified deaths while in some particularly dangerous parts of the war zone, such as Luhansk region, victims are said to have been buried informally, for instance in gardens
  • Rebels (and some military sources) accuse the government of concealing the true numbers of soldiers killed
  • 155,800 people have fled elsewhere in Ukraine while at least 188,000 have gone to Russia

The US also expressed its "deep concern" at the latest developments.

"These incursions indicate a Russian-directed counter-offensive is likely under way in Donetsk and Lugansk [Luhansk]," state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

She said Washington had noted "the Russian government's unwillingness to tell the truth even as its soldiers are found... inside Ukraine".

Earlier this week, 10 Russian paratroopers were captured on Ukrainian territory 20km (12 miles) from the Russian border.

The Kremlin said the soldiers had entered Ukraine by mistake.

The mayor of Novoazovsk, Oleg Sidorkin, told the Associated Press news agency on Wednesday that rebels had penetrated the town and he had seen "dozens" of tanks and armoured vehicles roll in.

Ukraine insisted it was still in control of the town but said seven villages to the north had been captured by separatists.

Novoazovsk is in the south of Donetsk region, near the port city of Mariupol where Ukrainian security forces dislodged rebels in June.

After his meeting with Mr Poroshenko on Tuesday, Mr Putin said Russia would assist any ceasefire talks, but that stopping the fighting was a matter for Ukraine alone.