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By Victoria Butenko and Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Russian tanks and troops fired their way into eastern Ukraine on Thursday and seized a strategic gateway town on the road to the heavily militarized Crimean peninsula that Moscow annexed in March, Ukrainian and NATO officials reported.

NATO released satellite photos of Russia’s recent troop and armor buildup on its border with Ukraine, and images showing columns of tanks and armored vehicles entering Ukraine from Russia’s Rostov region.

The Western military alliance evidence was bolstered by a pro-Russia separatist leader who told Russian state television that at least 3,000 Russian gunmen, many of them retired military or active-duty Kremlin troops on leave, have been fighting alongside the Ukrainian separatists since their uprising began five months ago.

“They are fighting with us, understanding that it is their duty,” said Alexander Zakharchenko, the self-styled leader of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, undermining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Russia has no role in the Ukrainian conflict.

Ukrainian security officials reported a major expansion of the armored incursion into Novoazovsk that began Wednesday. The report by Col. Andriy Lysenko of the National Security and Defense Council that two armored columns had crossed into Ukraine after firing rockets over the border prompted Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to cancel a trip abroad and summon the government’s security council for an emergency meeting.

“I have made a decision to cancel my working visit to the Republic of Turkey due to sharp aggravation of the situation in Donetsk region,” Poroshenko said. “Today the president’s place is in Kiev.”

A report from the security council said the Russian armored incursion, which has opened up a new front in Kiev’s battle against separatists, was carried out by regular Russian military forces replacing local militants and nationalists who had lost significant territory last month to Ukrainian troops.

Government forces were overwhelmed by the armored columns and ordered to withdraw, the security council statement said, leaving Novoazovsk for the invading Russians to take.

Ukrainian troops were reinforcing their positions on the seaside road leading to Mariupol, a city of nearly 500,000 that is a key shipping terminus and steelmaking venue. The same road leads eventually to the Crimean peninsula, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and about 25,000 troops are based.

The Russian deployments onto the Sea of Azov road have heightened fears that the Kremlin is planning to seize the corridor to provide a land bridge from the Russian mainland to Crimea.

At NATO’s military headquarters in Mons, Belgium, a Dutch general in charge of the alliance crisis management center released satellite images captured over the last two weeks and said they confirmed Russia’s military intrusion.

“Over the past two weeks we have noted a significant escalation in both the level and sophistication of Russia’s military interference in Ukraine,” said Brig. Gen. Nico Tak.

“Russia is reinforcing and resupplying separatist forces in a blatant attempt to change the momentum of the fighting, which is currently favoring the Ukrainian military,” Tak told journalists at a news conference.

He also said NATO estimates that there are at least 1,000 Russian military personnel directly engaged in fighting in Ukraine, and that 20,000 battle-ready troops and hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles are amassed in Russia just across the border.

Tak said the Russian action was aimed at freezing the conflict and confronting Ukraine with a permanent security crisis.

“It’s likely that the situation will end in a stalemate,” he said. “The foothold that has been created will be expanded and secured so that the separatists will not suffer a defeat.”

Special correspondent Butenko reported from Kiev and staff writer Williams from Los Angeles. Special correspondent Isabel Gorst in Moscow also contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Francisco Leong

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