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Ukraine Says Rebels Have Army Of ‘Mid-Sized European State’

Kiev (AFP) – Ukraine’s defence minister on Monday accused pro-Russian rebels backed up by Moscow’s forces of assembling a 40,000-strong army sufficient for a “mid-sized European state”.

Stepan Poltorak’s estimates fly in the face of Russia’s denials that it either backs the separatist fighters or covertly sneaks troops across its southwestern border into the Ukrainian warzone.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko last week put the number of active Russian soldiers in his former Soviet republic’s industrial east at more than 9,000.

But President Vladimir Putin describes Russians fighting against Ukraine’s pro-Western government troops as patriotic volunteers and off-duty soldiers who are answering “a call of the heart.”

Moscow has also distanced itself from two Russians captured last month who have told Ukrainian interrogators and Western reporters that they were active members of the Kremlin’s special military reconnaissance force.

The Ukrainian defence minister said the insurgent army — in control of parts of the Russian-speaking Lugansk and Donetsk regions that are home to about four million people — could muster more than 550 tanks and an arsenal of other heavy weapons.

“The combined size of the Russian armed forces and illegal armed formations… stands at more than 42,500,” Poltorak told a group of visiting lawmakers from NATO countries.

“This amount of weapons, as we all understand, would be sufficient for a mid-sized European state.”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Kiev’s own eastern force had grown to more than 50,000 after being limited to 5,000 soldiers at the onset of the war 14 months ago.

Ukraine’s latest charges come against the backdrop of growing fears that the ceasefire that Germany and France helped forge in February is now falling apart.

Clashes around the 10,000-strong town of Marinka — straddling the twisting line separating Kiev’s forces from the militants — and other disputed villages claimed some 30 lives last week and threatened to escalate on Monday.

“Our positions near Marinka came under small weapons and mortar fire this morning,” Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told AFP by telephone.

A rebel defence spokesman denied the charges and called the situation around the heavily-damaged town “calm”.

The international community had initially stopped short of formally accusing Putin of sending troops into Ukraine in what appears to be a bid to either break up the country or stamp out its budding alliance with the European Union and NATO.

Washington and Brussels imposed their heaviest sanctions on Moscow in response to its March 2014 annexation of Crimea. The eastern campaign saw those measures toughened but never saw Russia accused of an outright “invasion”.

The International Committee of the Red Cross also initially labelled the conflict a “civil war”.

And monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) occasionally refer to “irregularly armed groups” but prefer to simply call the rebels by their self-proclaimed name — armies of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics.

Yet the West’s tone appears to have recently hardened.

NATO commanders and some EU leaders openly accuse Putin of sending out alarming war signals across eastern Europe.

U.S. President Barack Obama used the G7 summit on Sunday to condemn “Russian aggression in Ukraine”.

And the U.S. State Department last week noted the presence in Ukraine of “Russian-separatist” forces — a term it had avoided using for months.

The West’s verbal assault has so far produced only a muted response from Moscow.

But Ukraine’s defence minister said he had recently found all previous communication lines with the Moscow military being gradually cut off.

“I personally have made several attempts to speak to the Russian defence minister, Mr (Sergei) Shoigu,” Poltorak said.

“But he always complained about a heavy workload and never agreed to talk.”

Photo: A Ukrainian serviceman stands guard on the front line in Opytne village, close to Donetsk airport on June 7, 2015. (AFP / Oleksandr Ratushniak)

Ukraine Welcomes US Resolution On Arms Shipments

By dpa (TNS)

KIEV, Ukraine — A U.S. resolution in favor of arms shipments to Ukraine was welcomed Tuesday by the government in Kiev and condemned as a call for war by Russian lawmakers in Moscow.

“I thank U.S. House of Representatives for a resolution calling to provide Ukraine with military assistance. Important that it is bipartisan,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said on Twitter.

A resolution passed Monday in Washington urges President Barack Obama’s administration to provide “lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine before it is too late” and criticizes the “tepid” U.S. response to Ukraine’s request for military aid.

The resolution, which is not legally binding, argues that “Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forcible takeover of Crimea last year emboldened him to expand his aggression in eastern Ukraine.”

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, refused to comment on the resolution. But Alexei Pushkov, the hawkish chairman of the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, warned that Moscow would react if the United States decides to send arms.

“This would be a massive rise in the level of confrontation,” he was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

Duma deputy Frants Klintsevich warned that arms shipments would kill off the Minsk peace agreements and that the resolution amounts to “a direct call for war.”

Ukrainian politicians, in contrast, reiterated their call for military aid.

“We do need this precision weaponry and our armed forces in the south in particular need to be modernized,” Refat Chubarov, the leader of the Crimean Tatars, told a committee of the European Parliament.

Chubarov urged lawmakers not to forget Crimea and demanded that the Western sanctions be linked to Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.

“The war against Ukraine started with the occupation of Crimea and the war against Ukraine may only be ceased with the liberation of Crimea,” he said.

Since April, more than 6,000 people have been killed in the conflict in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

(c)2015 Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH (Hamburg, Germany), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: AFP Photo/ Philippe Desmazes

Ukraine Threatens To Scrap Ceasefire


KIEV — Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko warned Tuesday that he would consider scrapping the conditions of a September truce with pro-Russian separatists, in the wake of what he referred to as “illegal” elections in the country’s east.

The disputed vote was held on Sunday in the Donbass region that includes Donetsk and Luhansk. For months the area has been beset by violent conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces.

Russia backed the outcome of the vote, which overwhelmingly supported the separatists, while the United States, the European Union, and Ukraine rejected it.

On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ruled out on any moves to end international sanctions against Russia amid the continuing tensions.

“There is currently no reason to repeal them,” Merkel told a meeting of the Federation of German Employers (BDA) in Berlin, and called on Moscow to use its influence over the separatists to implement the ceasefire agreement reached in Minsk in September.

The ceasefire protocol signed by the government and militants established special conditions for the region, including stipulating that local elections would have to be held under Ukrainian law.

After being ratified by Ukraine’s Parliament in late September, the ceasefire law grants partial autonomy and amnesty for the region for three years. It also grants the right to maintain armed units to those districts held by separatists.

Separatist leader Denis Pushilin dismissed Poroshenko’s threats, warning the government in Kiev against jeopardizing the peace process.

The pro-Western leadership has “stalled for time, leaving the people of Donbass in the dark for too long,” Pushilin said on Russian television channel Rossiya 24 in reference to the area affected by the armed rebellion.
He added that repealing the law was no great threat, characterizing it as ineffective.

Sunday’s election winners were due to take power on Tuesday. The separatists declared their independence from Ukraine in the spring, with their leaders saying they were in favour of joining Russia at a later stage.

Since then, more than 3,600 people have been killed in the conflict, which emerged following the removal of Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych in a popular uprising in February.

Meanwhile, a rebel commander stated that pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine were in possession of anti-aircraft missiles as a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet was shot down in July.

The admission by Commander Alexander Khodakovski in an interview published Tuesday in the Dutch daily De Volkskrant contradicts prior statements by the rebels on the matter.

Khodakovski however denied that rebels fired at the jet MH17, which had 298 people on board.

“A Buk-system was travelling from Luhansk to the area, but was not yet in place,” Khodakovski said referring to a Russian-built system of surface-to-air missiles.

The cause of MH17’s July 17 demise has still not been clarified.

AFP News/Alexander Khudoteply

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Ukraine Denies Rights Group Report It Uses Cluster Bombs

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian armed forces have never used prohibited weapons such as cluster bombs in their fight against pro-Russia separatists, a military spokesman insisted Tuesday after a rights group reported it had documented a dozen instances when the indiscriminate weapons were used in populated areas.
The report by Human Rights Watch also said there were circumstances, “while not conclusive,” suggesting that the separatists had also used the weapons that pack dozens or hundreds of small bomblets inside a rocket that explode over a wide area and put many people at risk.
“It is shocking to see a weapon that most countries have banned used so extensively in eastern Ukraine,” Human Rights Watch senior arms researcher Mark Hiznay said of the group’s weeklong investigation into the use of cluster bombs in Donetsk, a city of 1 million residents before the conflict.
Cluster bombs leave a distinctive crater and fragmentation pattern, the rights group’s report noted, and several of the remnants examined included markings that allowed for positive identification of the source.
Col. Andriy Lysenko of the National Security and Defense Council said Ukraine appreciates the work of international monitors and human rights workers in battle-torn eastern Ukraine but cautioned that the independent observers needed to be vigilant against incidents staged by the Russian-backed rebels.
“There are provocations every day. The terrorists set up these scenes, especially for Russian television,” Lysenko said, claiming Kiev doesn’t use cluster bombs by order of President Petro Poroshenko.
The Human Rights Watch report alleging government use of the weapons — banned by the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which neither Russia nor Ukraine has signed — as recently as last week added to the mounting indications that a Sept. 5 cease-fire is having little effect on the bloody violence that has been consuming eastern Ukraine.
Although Lysenko said no Ukrainian government troops had been killed in the previous 24 hours, he made clear that soldiers and volunteer militia had been engaged by numerous attacks around Donetsk. His claim that many enemy fighters were killed in the sporadic battles appeared to be born out by a report carried by Russia’s TASS news agency quoting the defense ministry of the proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk saying that 12 people had been killed and 27 wounded.
Five of the dead in Donetsk and 19 of the injured were gunmen while the rest were civilians, TASS reported.
“If the Ukrainian authorities talk about the truce, they lie,” the breakaway region’s so-called prime minister, Alexander Zakharchenko, was quoted by TASS as saying.
Lysenko, at his daily briefing in Kiev, was asked whether Russian troops had pulled back from the Ukrainian border, as Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had ordered. There were 17,600 Russian soldiers along the volatile border, purportedly for military exercises, when the Kremlin chief ordered them back to their permanent bases on Sunday.
“We don’t have confirmation that they have pulled back,” Lysenko said, adding that initial indications of movement turned out to be short-lived. “The majority of the Russian forces are still there.”
The security spokesman also reported that a massive explosion in Donetsk on Monday that blew out windows for miles around a shuttered chemical plant was caused by an attempt by the rebel gunmen to restart production of explosives.
“The explosion occurred because the militants didn’t have the technical capabilities to carry out the production process,” Lysenko said, adding that he didn’t have information on casualties from the blast.
Use of heavy weapons and sophisticated munitions and technology has increased in recent weeks, in spite of the purported cease-fire, during which about 400 people have been killed. Since the fighting began in earnest in April, more than 3,700 have been killed, the United Nations’ human rights agency recently estimated.
Ukrainian authorities have lately accused the separatists of gaining more accurate targets for shelling thanks to the operation of drone aircraft from the Russian Federation to pinpoint targets. The drone sightings, especially over the front-line city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, have strengthened accusations from Ukrainian authorities and their Western allies that Russia is arming and assisting the rebels in their quest to take territory and destabilize Ukraine.
Poroshenko in late August disbanded the dysfunctional parliament that had been left behind when his pro-Russian predecessor, Viktor Yanukovich, fled the country in February in the face of protests calling for greater ties to Europe. Early elections to replace the 450-seat Supreme Council elected two years ago are set for Sunday, and Ukrainian security officials warn they are braced for further attacks on the eve of the parliamentary voting.
Putin seized Ukraine’s Crimea region after Yanukovich fled, claiming Moscow was obliged to step in and protect the largely Russian-inhabited peninsula from those who took power in Kiev. Russia annexed Crimea on March 18, inspiring the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk regions to seize government buildings and try to force similar territorial transfers.

AFP Photo/Anatolii Stepanov

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