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.
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.