By Maria Tsvetkova
MOSCOW, Aug 26 (Reuters) - Unidentified, heavily-armed strangers with Russian accents have appeared in an eastern Ukrainian village, arousing residents' suspicions despite Moscow's denials that its troops have deliberately infiltrated the frontier.
Two witnesses told Reuters on Tuesday that the dozens of men, who arrived at the weekend and set up a road block, were not local and had military ration packs marked with Russian writing.
While they wore no insignia, their appearance or behavior bore striking similarities to a group of Russian troops detained in Ukraine in the past few days, and to Russian forces which occupied Crimea earlier this year, the witnesses said.
The men had white arm bands, the same identifying mark that was worn by 10 men captured a few kilometers (miles) away by Ukrainian forces and who, in video released on Tuesday, said they were Russian paratroopers.
Ukraine accuses Russia of sending weapons and soldiers to fight alongside pro-Moscow rebels in the country's east, a charge the Kremlin has denied throughout the five-month conflict.
If it turns out that Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine, that could deepen yet further the crisis, which is the focus of talks on Tuesday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart in Minsk.
Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said in a Twitter post: "The new columns of Russian tanks and armor crossing into Ukraine indicates a Russian-directed counter-offensive may be underway."
Kolosky is about 7 km (4 miles) from Dzerkalniy, a settlement where Ukrainian officials said they had detained the 10 Russian troops featured in the video footage.
Russian news agencies cited a source in the Russian defense ministry as saying the paratroopers had strayed into Ukraine by mistake during an exercise. One of the men said in video footage released by Ukraine's security services that they had been instructed to put on white arm-bands.
The two witnesses who spoke to Reuters said the armed men did not have any insignia on their uniforms or vehicles that would explicitly identify them as Russian troops, but they said there were more subtle signs.
Dmitry Chistyukhin, a resident of Kolosky, said some of the men were trading their military-issue ready-to-eat meals with villagers for home-made preserved fruit and vegetables. He said the writing on the ration packs was Russian, not Ukrainian.
They had painted over identifying marks on their military vehicles with white circles, he added.
When residents approached their checkpoint and asked if they were allowed to travel on to the next village, called Komsomolske, the armed men asked, according to Chistyukhin: "Where's that?"
"The people at the new checkpoint, they were polite military men wearing green. Definitely not Ukrainian. They're definitely not from around here," he said.
'Polite green men' was the tongue-in-cheek term coined by many Russians to describe Russian soldiers, with identifying insignia removed, who arrived in Ukraine's Crimea region before Moscow annexed it in March.
Another witness, Alexei, who was in Kolosky on Monday, said that the armed men, when asked who they were, told residents only that they had come "to protect them".
That was an answer given by Russian military officers after they first seized state buildings in Crimea.
"It looks like direct invasion," said Alexei.
He said he and a friend counted what they said was 38 armored personnel carriers, 2 fueling trucks and numerous military transport vehicles full of people in Kolosky and the immediate vicinity.
Heavy shelling around the village began as soon as the armored cars arrived, though Alexei said it was not clear who was doing the shelling.
Both said they first saw new military hardware on Sunday, which included anti-aircraft systems as well as artillery guns. (Writing by Thomas Grove; Editing by Christian Lowe and David Stamp)
BEFORE YOU GO
09/06/2014 6:08 PM EDT
Factory Ablaze After Artillery Fire Near Mariupol
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.
09/06/2014 6:03 PM EDT
Ukraine Battalion: Reports Of Civilian Casualties In Shelling
09/06/2014 6:00 PM EDT
#RussiaViolatedCeasefire Trends On Twitter
Twitter users are using the hashtag #RussiaViolatedCeasefire to blame Moscow for renewed violence in east Ukraine.
Hashtag #russiaviolatedceasefire is now showing up as a suggestion. Good work, fellow Ukrainians— неХуёвый Portland (@the_boris) September 6, 2014
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.
09/06/2014 5:43 PM EDT
Rockets Fired In Ukraine Amid Ceasefire
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.
09/06/2014 4:49 PM EDT
Reports Of Shelling In Mariupol
BBC journalists Fergal Keane and Will Vernon in Ukraine's Mariupol say that shelling of the port city has resumed.
#Ukraine shelling started at approx 2235 local and is continuing— Fergal Keane (@fergalkeane47) September 6, 2014
#Ukraine On roof of hotel and can see flashes from explosions and hear powerful detonations.— Fergal Keane (@fergalkeane47) September 6, 2014
09/06/2014 12:21 PM EDT
ICRC Says Aid Trucks Forced Back By Shelling
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.
09/06/2014 10:59 AM EDT
Putin, Poroshenko Agree Cease-Fire Holding
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.
09/06/2014 10:58 AM EDT
Rebel Leader: Prisoner Exchange To Take Place Saturday
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.
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.
The Ukrainian National Information Agency released a list of the 14 points included in the cease-fire plan. #Ukraine— Neil MacFarquhar (@NeilMacFarquhar) September 5, 2014
2 some focused on cease-fire itself, some on practical steps to get the government functioning and some on Donbas political future. #Ukraine— Neil MacFarquhar (@NeilMacFarquhar) September 5, 2014
3 The agreement followed almost verbatim a cease-fire proposal first put out by Mr. Poroshenko in June.— Neil MacFarquhar (@NeilMacFarquhar) September 5, 2014
4 14 points include amnesty for all those who disarm and who did not commit serious crimes, as well as the release of all hostages. #Ukraine— Neil MacFarquhar (@NeilMacFarquhar) September 5, 2014
5 Militias will be disbanded, and a 10-kilometer buffer zone established along Russian-Ukrainian border. Area subject to joint patrols— Neil MacFarquhar (@NeilMacFarquhar) September 5, 2014
6 Separatists agreed to leave administrative buildings they control and broadcasts from Ukraine to resume on TV #Ukraine— Neil MacFarquhar (@NeilMacFarquhar) September 5, 2014
7 On future, the agreement said power would be decentralized and the Russian language protected. Region consulted on selection of governor— Neil MacFarquhar (@NeilMacFarquhar) September 5, 2014
8. Early elections and jobs....No mention of a chicken in every pot. #Ukraine— Neil MacFarquhar (@NeilMacFarquhar) September 5, 2014
09/05/2014 12:18 PM EDT
Obama: Hopeful But Skeptical
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.