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Putin Urges Release Of Ukrainian Soldiers

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NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Their tanks bearing the flag of their would-be state, Russian-backed separatists held control Friday over this coastal town on the new front in the Ukraine conflict and announced their intention to keep pushing west toward a major port city.

None of the half-dozen tanks seen by Associated Press reporters in the town of about 12,000 people bore Russian markings, but the packaging on their field rations said they were issued by the Russian army.

The Ukrainian government the day before accused Russia of sending tanks, artillery and troops across the border, and NATO estimated at least 1,000 Russian troops were in Ukraine.

As tensions rose, European Union foreign ministers called for heavier sanctions against Moscow ahead of Saturday's summit of EU leaders in Brussels. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was invited to address the summit.

The rebels denied they are getting Russian military vehicles.

"We are fighting with the machinery the (Ukrainian forces) abandon. They just dump it and flee," said a rebel commander who identified himself by the nom de guerre Frantsuz, or the Frenchman.

Although such claims of using only confiscated Ukrainian equipment are common, top rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko himself has said Russia was supplying equipment and fighters — something Moscow has steadfastly denied doing.

"Despite Moscow's hollow denials, it is now clear that Russian troops and equipment have illegally crossed the border," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday. "This is a blatant violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. It defies all diplomatic efforts for a peaceful solution."

A spokesman for the rebels in Novoazovsk, who identified himself only as Alexander, said their plan was to push westward to the major port city of Mariupol, about 35 kilometers (20 miles) away.

There was no sign of imminent movement on Friday, but Alexander's statement underlined fears that the rebels' eventual aim is to establish a land bridge between the Russian mainland and the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia earlier this year.

Speaking at a Kremlin-organized youth camp on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin likened the Ukrainian government's efforts to put down the separatist uprising to the Nazi siege of Leningrad in 1941-44.

The Leningrad comparison is a powerful one for Russians and clearly aimed at portraying the Ukraine conflict in stark, good-versus-evil terms. The 872-day siege, in which at least 670,000 civilians died, is seen by many Russians as one of the most heroic chapters in the country's history.

To stop the bloodshed, the Kiev government should open talks with the rebels, Putin said.

The death toll in the fighting reached nearly 2,600 as of Wednesday, said Ivan Simonovic, U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights. He described the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine as "alarming," with people unable to leave cities caught up in the fighting.

The U.N. human rights office on Friday accused both sides of deliberately targeting civilians.

The separatists have carried out murders, torture and abductions along with other serious human rights abuses, while Ukraine's military is guilty of such acts as arbitrary detentions, disappearances and torture, the organization said in a report.

At a meeting in Milan, several EU foreign ministers accused Russia of invading eastern Ukraine and said Moscow should be punished with additional sanctions. The diplomats were expected to draw up measures that could put before the EU heads of state on Saturday.

The head of the EU's executive Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, warned Putin that further destabilization of Ukraine "will carry high costs."

Putin called on the separatists to release Ukrainian soldiers who have been surrounded by the rebels in eastern Ukraine. He appeared to be referring to soldiers trapped outside the town of Ilovaysk, east of Donetsk, for nearly a week.

Zakharchenko, the rebel leader, said the Ukrainian troops would have to lay down their arms before they would be allowed to go "so that this weaponry and ammunition will not be used against us in future."

A spokesman for Ukraine's national security council, Col. Andriy Lysenko, rejected the demand: "Ukraine is not ready to surrender arms and kneel in front of the aggressor."

Ukraine, meanwhile, got a boost from the International Monetary Fund, which said Friday it had approved payment of a $1.39 billion aid installment as part of a financial support package. The sum brings the total that has been paid out to $4.51 billion, out of $16.67 billion due over two years.

For the second day, Russian markets reacted nervously to the escalation of the conflict, with the Russian ruble sliding to the all-time low of 37.10 rubles against the dollar in early morning trading. It recovered later to 36.90 rubles.


Juergen Baetz reported from Milan. Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Jim Heintz in Kiev, and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed reporting.

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Reuters reports:

Prolonged artillery fire was heard late on Saturday to the east of the port of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine, a Reuters reporter said, in what may be the first significant violation of a ceasefire declared little more than 24 hours earlier.

The reporter saw an industrial facility, a truck and a gas station ablaze in an area within the limits of Mariupol, a city of 500,000 people on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border.

The area had seen fierce fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists before the ceasefire took effect on Friday evening. It had been quiet since then until the artillery fire began late on Saturday.

"There has been an artillery attack. We received a number of impacts, we have no information about casualties," a Ukrainian officer told Reuters at the scene.

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Twitter users are using the hashtag #RussiaViolatedCeasefire to blame Moscow for renewed violence in east Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Lithuanian Ambassador to Sweden Eitvydas Bajarunas used the hashtag for call for more information, as rockets and shelling were reported in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.

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The Associated Press reports:

Witnesses in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol are reporting sustained explosions outside the city and a volunteer battalion of Ukrainian fighters says Grad rockets are being fired at its positions.

The reports Saturday night come little more than a day after Ukraine and Russian-backed separatist rebels signed a cease-fire after more than four months of fighting in the country's east.

The cease-fire had appeared to largely been holding during much of the day.

But late Saturday, witnesses in Mariupol told The Associated Press by telephone that heavy explosions were coming from the city's eastern outskirts, where Ukrainian troops retain defensive lines against the rebels.

The volunteer Azov Battalion said on Facebook that their positions were hit by Grad rockets, but did not give details.

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BBC journalists Fergal Keane and Will Vernon in Ukraine's Mariupol say that shelling of the port city has resumed.

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The International Committee of the Red Cross said its aid trucks were forced to turn back on Saturday morning due to shelling in east Ukraine.

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Reuters reports:

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko agreed on Saturday in a telephone call that a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine was generally holding but said further steps were needed to make it more durable.

The ceasefire between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists took effect on Friday evening, part of a wider peace plan aimed at ending five months of fighting in eastern Ukraine.

"(The two leaders) also stressed the need for the maximum involvement of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in monitoring the situation ... and for cooperation in providing Ukrainian and international humanitarian help," Poroshenko's office said in a statement.

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A separatist leader said that the rebels and Ukrainian government will begin the exchange of prisoners of war, part of the peace roadmap, later on Saturday, Reuters reports. Meanwhile, Kiev said the details of the exchange were still being worked out.

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09/05/2014 12:38 PM EDT
Peace Deal Outlined

New York Times Moscow bureau chief Neil MacFarquhar outlines the different aspects of the Ukrainian peace deal.

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09/05/2014 12:18 PM EDT
Obama: Hopeful But Skeptical

Via Reuters:

U.S. President Barack Obama said he was hopeful but skeptical about a ceasefire agreed in Ukraine on Friday and urged European allies to agree on new sanctions against Russia that could be suspended if the peace plan holds.

He also said he was leaving a two-day NATO summit in Wales confident that U.S. allies were prepared to join a broad coalition to take action to degrade and ultimately destroy Islamic State militants in Iraq.

"We also sent a strong message to Russia that actions have consequences. Today the United States and Europe are finalizing measures to deepen and broaden our sanctions across Russia's financial, energy and defense sectors," Obama told a news conference.

NATO had made clear it would defend every ally, and that it supported Ukraine's sovereignty against what he called Russian aggression, he said.

"With respect to the ceasefire agreement, obviously we are hopeful but based on past experience also skeptical that in fact the separatists will follow through and the Russians will stop violating Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. So it has to be tested," the president said.

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09/05/2014 9:56 AM EDT
Poroshenko's Full Statement

Read the full statement by Ukrainian President Poroshenko.

My international negotiations in Brussels and Minsk demonstrated a powerful request for peaceful political-diplomatic settlement of the conflict in the Donbas. The same mood dominated during my meetings with global leaders at the NATO Summit in Wales.

The entire world strives for peace, the entire Ukraine strives for peace, including millions of Donbas residents.

The highest value is human life. We must do everything possible and impossible to terminate bloodshed and put an end to people's suffering.

Taking into account the call for ceasefire of President of Russia Vladimir Putin addressed to the heads of illegal armed groups of the Donbas and the signature of the protocol at the meeting of Trilateral contact group on the implementation of the Peace plan of the President of Ukraine, I order the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to cease fire starting from 18:00, September 5.

I also instruct the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine to ensure jointly with the OSCE an efficient international control over the compliance with the ceasefire regime which must be exclusively bilateral.

I hope that these agreements, including ceasefire and liberation of hostages, will be strictly observed.

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Ukraine's president told military commanders to cease fire from 6 pm on Friday.

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Ukrainian President Poroshenko confirmed on Twitter that a peace deal was signed.

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09/05/2014 9:30 AM EDT
Rebels Still Seek To Split

Reuters notes that separatist rebels in Ukraine's east are still seeking to split from the country, despite reports that negotiators reached a ceasefire deal in Minsk.

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09/05/2014 8:57 AM EDT
More On The Ceasefire Reports

More on the ceasefire reports from Reuters:

MOSCOW, Sept 5 (Reuters) - Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels signed an agreement on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine starting at 6 p.m. (1500 GMT) on Friday, Russian news agency Interfax quoted a source close to the talks as saying.

There was no immediate confirmation of the deal at the talks in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, which also included representatives of Russia and the OSCE security watchdog.

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09/05/2014 8:52 AM EDT
Cease-Fire Reports

Reports negotiators in Minsk have reached a cease-fire deal.

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09/04/2014 2:43 PM EDT

In several posts on Twitter, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen once again accused Russia of deepening the crisis in Ukraine.

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09/04/2014 2:38 PM EDT
Merkel: Prepared To Talk

At the NATO summit in Wales, German leader Angela Merkel said they're prepared to talk with Russia about a political solution for the crisis in Ukraine. Merkel added that they're prepared to lend weight to demands with further sanctions.

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Pro-Russian separatist leader Oleg Tsaryov told Reuters that rebels insist on "proper guarantees" from Kiev before agreeing to a cease-fire.

"There will be no ceasefire without guarantees because in the past we had some ceasefire agreements Poroshenko didn't honor. We need proper guarantees because not all troops on the Ukrainian side answer to Kiev," Tsaryov said.

"There are also batallions sponsored by the oligarchs. We don't want any ceasefire to be used by them to recruit more people and to bring in more military equipment."

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Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko and the main rebel leader in east Ukraine both say they will order cease-fires on Friday if a peace plan is agreed.

Reuters reports:

Speaking on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Wales, Poroshenko said the ceasefire would be conditional on a planned meeting going ahead in Minsk on Friday of envoys from Ukraine, Russia and Europe's OSCE security watchdog.

"At 1400 local time (7.00 a.m. EDT on Friday), provided the (Minsk) meeting takes place, I will call on the General Staff to set up a bilateral ceasefire and we hope that the implementation of the peace plan will begin tomorrow," Poroshenko told reporters.

Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko said in a statement that the separatists would also order a ceasefire, from one hour later, provided that Kiev's representatives signed up to a peace plan at the Minsk meeting.

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Ukraine is reinforcing its defenses at the country's largest port amid reports that separatist rebels are advancing on Mariupol, Reuters reports.

A Ukrainian soldier told Reuters he had seen pro-Russian separatists advancing on the port city with tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery.

The Guardian's Shaun Walker posted photos on Twitter of a pro-Kiev rally in Mariupol.

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Reuters reports:

Key NATO leaders agreed during a summit meeting on Thursday that Russia should faced increased sanctions for its actions in eastern Ukraine, the White House said.

U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi sat down with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko on the fringes of a NATO summit in Wales.

"The leaders reiterated their condemnation of Russia's continued flagrant vioaltion of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and agreed on the need for Russia to face increased costs for its actions," a White House statement said.

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09/04/2014 10:13 AM EDT
Poroshenko Tweets
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09/04/2014 9:17 AM EDT
Blasts Heard Near Mariupol.

Reuters reports that witnesses have heard blasts near the port city of Mariupol.

A Reuters witness heard about a dozen blasts and saw plumes of black smoke rising a few km (miles) to the east of the port of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine on Thursday.

Earlier, a military source said Ukraine's army was on a state of heightened alert near Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Azov Sea that guards the way towards Russian-annexed Crimea.

A Ukrainian soldier told Reuters he had seen pro-Russian separatists advancing on the city with tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery. His comments could not be independently confirmed.

"Our plan is to stay here (in an eastern district of Mariupol) and not to budge an inch," said the soldier, who was from Ukraine's Azov batallion.

Read the full story here.

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09/04/2014 9:15 AM EDT
Livestream From Wales
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A NATO officer told Reuters on Thursday that Russia has several thousand combat troops inside Ukraine.

Reuters reports:

Russia has several thousand combat troops and hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles inside Ukraine, a NATO military officer said on Thursday.

NATO had previously said that "well over 1,000" Russian troops were operating inside Ukraine, marking a significant escalation of Moscow's military involvement in the country.

"We are still seeing several thousand Russian combat troops on the ground inside Ukraine, equipped with hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles, so (there is) no substantial change in the disposition of Russian forces inside Ukraine," the NATO officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Wales.

Around 20,000 Russian troops remain close to the Ukrainian border, he said.

Read more here.

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09/03/2014 2:46 PM EDT
More On France's Decision

From Reuters:

The French government cannot go ahead for now with the planned delivery of a first of two helicopter carriers to Russia, the president's office said on Wednesday, citing Moscow's actions in eastern Ukraine.

France, due to join NATO partners at a summit in Britain from Thursday, has faced fierce pressure from Washington and other allies to halt the sale of the Mistral-class warships, the first of which had been due for delivery in October.

Four hundred Russian sailors have been receiving training to operate the carrier since the end of June at shipyards at Saint-Naizaire, on France's Atlantic coast.

Warning Moscow it could face more sanctions, President Francois Hollande's said last week it would be "intolerable and unacceptable" if it were proven that Russian forces had entered Ukrainian territory, something Russia denies.

"Russia's recent actions run against the foundations of security in Europe," Hollande's office said in a statement after a meeting between the president and his top military advisers.

"The president of the republic has concluded that despite the prospect of ceasefire, which has yet to be confirmed and put in place, the conditions under which France could authorize the delivery of the first helicopter carrier are not in place."

Read more here.

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09/03/2014 12:50 PM EDT
France Suspends Delivery

France announced on Wednesday it is suspending the delivery of the first Mistral class vessel to Russia.

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