Update as of 2:26 a.m. EST: Thirteen people were killed in a shelling attack at a tram stop in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, Agence France-Presse reported Thursday. The latest attack took place after the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels had agreed on a demarcation line from where they would have to withdraw their heavy weapons.
Battle between Ukrainian military and the pro-Russian separatists continued on Wednesday at a remote border checkpoint near Luhansk, which Ukraine claimed was confiscated by Russian forces on Monday, according to a spokesperson for Kiev.
The latest statement from the Ukrainian military came after President Petro O. Poroshenko accused Russia on Wednesday of sending 9,000 troops to help separatist rebels in the eastern region of Ukraine. With Poroshenko’s claim and subsequent support from NATO, which said that heavy weapons used by Russian troops in eastern Ukraine had increased, the border post, which lies 90 miles northeast of Donetsk, has become the new center of attention, The New York Times reported.
Lt. Col. Roman Turovets, the Ukrainian military spokesperson, told the Times that the soldiers engaged in fighting with Kiev forces at border post, dubbed Checkpoint 31, were believed to be highly trained members of the Russian regular forces.
“The people who attacked, they were very professional,” Turovets told the Times. “Our troops could tell they were well trained, from how they moved.”
According to Turovets, the suspected Russian troops attacked the Ukrainian forces on Tuesday and were able to drive them away from the area. The Ukrainian military responded with shelling attacks that were followed by an exchange of fire, which continued on Wednesday, The Times reported.
Since the beginning of the conflict last year, Russia has denied that any of its regular forces are deployed in Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that both Ukraine and the West have failed to provide proof to support their claims about Moscow’s involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
In Berlin on Wednesday, diplomats from Russia and Ukraine agreed on a separation line from where both sides would have to withdraw their heavy weapons. Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who hosted the four-nation talk, which also included France, said that all parties had agreed that the dividing line mentioned in the Minsk agreement last year would be the basis of the latest withdrawal of arms, The Associated Press reported.
According to the agreement, Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels are required to retract their heavy arms about 9 miles on either side of the demarcation line. However, no agreement was made on the withdrawal of troops.
Lavrov said, prior to Wednesday's four-nation talk, that Russian President Vladimir Putin had written a letter to the Ukrainian government proposing the use of the original separation line to conduct the withdrawal of weapons. However, the U.S. claimed that Putin's new peace proposal for Ukraine is aimed at securing the territory seized by Moscow-backed rebels, Reuters reported.
“Let us pull the veil away from Putin's peace plan and call it for what it is - a Russian occupation plan,” U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told the U.N. Security Council, adding that the proposal was “a plan that would free Russia from the commitment it made in Minsk to withdraw its fighters and return control over the international border to Ukraine.”
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed the lives of more than 4,700 people since April last year. The growing unrest in the region has also crippled Ukraine’s economy, which is expected to further weaken if an existing IMF loan program is not increased to bridge an estimated $15 billion funding gap.
“President Poroshenko informed me today that the Ukrainian authorities have requested a multi-year arrangement with the Fund,” Reuters quoted IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, as saying. “I will submit it to the board which will convene as soon as possible. I will propose to support it.”