Armored vehicles and soldiers, some of them hardened in battle, paraded on Kiev's main square on Sunday to mark Independence Day in a defiant show of the military force Ukraine's government hopes will defeat pro-Russian separatists in the east.

Soldiers, some of whom were due to head directly to the front in the war against the separatists, staged a marchpast before Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko who told them in a speech that the war they were fighting was a war of independence that would go into the history books.

Armored vehicles armed with anti-tank weapons and machine-guns and trucks towing missile systems followed behind the columns of soldiers.

"Before you, a new military column is heading directly to the zone of the 'anti-terrorist' operation," Poroshenko said.

Kiev's Independence Square - known locally as the 'Maidan' and which was the crucible of street protests that toppled a Moscow-backed leader and precipitated the separatist rebellions in the east - was bedecked with the blue-and-yellow flag of Ukraine.

Many of the thousands of people who turned out in sunshine for celebrations wore traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts and blouses or wrapped the national flag around their shoulders.

Program coordinators said the 1,500 service personnel taking part included about 120 men who had already seen action on the eastern front in areas near the rebel-strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Earlier, before the march-past, Poroshenko and his family placed wreaths and knelt down before shrines to some of the 100 or so street protesters who were shot dead by police snipers in February just off the Maidan in the last days of ousted president Viktor Yanukovich's rule.

The United Nations says more than 2,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in April in Ukraine's mainly Russian-speaking east following Russia's annexation of Crimea.

In recent weeks government troops have gained the upper hand against the separatists, pushing them back into their main strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Sunday's heady mix of patriotism and militarism appeared to underscore a new confidence in the Ukrainian leadership that the war was going their way.

Fighting continued in the east. Early on Sunday, artillery bombs rained down on central Donetsk, hitting the territory of one of the city's biggest hospitals. 

Rebels laid out destroyed  Ukrainian military hardware in the city's central square in preparation for their own celebrations meant to counter Kiev's festivities.

In central Donetsk’s Lenin Square, rebels assembled destroyed Ukrainian military hardware captured in battle to display on Sunday.

Donetsk residents looked inside the burnt out hulks of four Soviet-era armored personnel carriers, strewn with bullets and clothes from the Ukrainian soldiers who had operated them.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Grove in Donetsk, Ukraine; and Alessandra Prentice in Kiev; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Christian Lowe)