Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists were locked in fierce fighting in the east of Ukraine yesterday after rebels rejected a call to lay down their arms in line with a peace plan proposed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, government forces said.
Heavy fighting broke out at about 4am near the town of Krasny Liman, which itself has been under government control since early this month.
“We issued an ultimatum to the terrorists overnight to surrender their weapons. We guarantee their safety and investigation in line with Ukrainian law ... They refused,” government forces spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov said.
“Now we are trying to narrow the encirclement. They are trying to break out,” Seleznyov said.
Poroshenko, installed as president on June 7, is pushing a peace plan to end the separatist rebellion, including an offer of a unilateral ceasefire by government forces and amnesty for the separatists as long as they put down their weapons.
Kiev has accused Russia of fomenting the unrest in the east and of allowing volunteer fighters from Russia to cross into Ukraine to support the rebels.
This is denied by Moscow.
The violence has cost the lives of 147 Ukrainian soldiers and wounded 267 up to now, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said on Wednesday. However, many scores of separatist militia, civilians and members of other military bodies, such as the national guard, have also been killed and the overall death toll is much higher.
Ukrainian forces, which lost 49 servicemen on June 14 when separatists brought down a military helicopter in the Luhansk region, have been gradually tightening their encirclement of rebel positions to the south and east of Krasny Liman, including the rebel stronghold of Slaviansk.
Up to 4,000 separatist fighters could be involved in yesterday’s fighting near Krasny Liman, and armored vehicles and possibly tanks were being used by both sides, the military source said.
The reported use of tanks could not be independently confirmed.
Military sources said the Ukrainian forces had fired leaflets into rebel areas giving them an ultimatum to lay down their weapons in line with the Poroshenko blueprint.
“When they received a refusal, the forces of the anti-terrorist operation went over to active action,” said Dmytro Tymchuk, a military analyst.
“There is a major battle going on which exceeds in terms of force and scale anything there has been up to now,” he added.
“There is an ongoing active phase of the ATO [anti-terrorist operation] in the region of Krasny Liman,” Seleznyov said.
Asked about the report that 4,000 separatists could be involved, Seleznyov, the government forces spokesman, replied: “Then there will be 4,000 coffins.”