Lugansk: Hundreds of pro-Russian gunmen struck a Ukrainian border guard camp with mortar and grenade launchers Monday, one of the biggest offensives in an insurgency Washington said Moscow was directly involved in.
The well-coordinated dawn raid, which Kiev said involved trained rebel snipers perched on rooftops, was an unwelcome reminder to president-elect Petro Poroshenko of the difficulty of keeping his May 25 election promise to save his crisis-hit country from disintegration and economic collapse.
The 48-year-old pro-Western chocolate baron had earlier Monday won a surprise reprieve when Russia`s state gas firm Gazprom delayed a threatened cut in fuel shipments that would also impact large portions of Europe.
The decision to give Ukraine a week`s reprieve came hours before the two sides were to lock horns in Brussels over a price dispute that began when Moscow cancelled the discounts it awarded pro-Kremlin leader Viktor Yanukovych prior to his February fall.
Moscow had threatened to halt all shipments to Ukraine -- a vital gas transit nation now seeking a closer alliance with the West -- from Tuesday in a repetition of interruptions that also hurt swathes of Europe in 2006 and 2009.
A visit to Kiev by US Assistant Secretary of Defence Derek Chollet marked another boost for Ukraine`s attempts to build global pressure against attempts by a part of its economically vital industrial east to join Russia.
Downing Street said that British Prime Minister David Cameron would also press Russian President Vladimir Putin to take immediate steps to defuse Europe`s worst crisis in decades when the two leaders meet on the sidelines of Friday`s D-Day commemorations in Normandy.
But a Kremlin spokesman said the question of Putin`s first meeting with Poroshenko "is not being worked upon" despite the new Ukrainian leader`s promise to arrange such talks in Normandy.
Putin has not officially spoken to anyone in the Kiev government since Ukraine chose to anchor its future to Europe and overthrew a pro-Kremlin regime.The rise to power in Kiev of Western-backed nationalists and the Kremlin`s seizure of Crimea in March stirred up the passions of ethnic Russians in eastern regions who never fully gave up on the idea of being Soviet citizens rooted to Moscow.
Putin`s subsequent promise to use the army if needed to "protect" his compatriots across the Russian border set off a spark that saw Ukraine`s east engulfed in a seven-week separatist drive that has claimed around 200 lives and shaken the very foundation of the ex-Soviet state.
Ukraine`s border guard service said Monday`s day-long battle at one of its bases on the southern edge of the rebel stronghold city of Lugansk killed at least five insurgents and wounded eight servicemen.
An AFP reporter saw comrades pull the body of one rebel sniper from a roof of a nine-storey apartment block building with his white shirt soaked in blood.
The border guard service said its forces and the rebels agreed to a 30-minute afternoon ceasefire so that both sides` wounded could be evacuated by ambulance.
A spokesman for Ukraine`s self-proclaimed "anti-terrorist operation" said the border guards eventually received air cover from fighter bombers that managed to destroy "two mortar crews of militants".
An AFP reporter saw small craters in the ground around the Lugansk administration building that the separatists occupied at the onset of their insurgency on April 6.
A firetruck had extended a ladder through the smashed window on the fourth floor of the rebel`s five-story seat of power in the region of 2.25 million mostly Russian speakers.
Hints of smoke from inside the administration building suggested either an explosion or the aftermaths of a mortar attack.US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said Washington was prepared to push for tougher economic sanctions against Russia at a G7 leading nations summit in Brussels on Thursday because Moscow was still trying to destabilise its western neighbour.
"There is evidence that Russia continues to allow the free flow of weapons, funds, and fighters across its borders and President Putin`s next steps are still not clear," Lew said in a Washington address.
He added that US President Barack Obama "has given us the authority to take even more powerful action if Russia continues to support armed separatists in eastern Ukraine."
Ukraine`s president-elect Poroshenko -- a tycoon and political veteran who as foreign minister enjoyed good working relations with top Moscow officials -- is seeking a closer Western military alliance and distancing himself from Putin`s embrace.
The visit by the Pentagon`s Chollet comes ahead of Poroshenko`s first meeting on Wednesday in Warsaw with US President Barack Obama.
Ukraine and the ex-Soviet satellites of eastern Europe are anxious about the impact of a big speech Obama gave last week in which he put American diplomacy above military might in confronting threats such as that of Russia`s expansion.
But US officials insist that Washington`s commitment to Ukraine remained strong.
Chollet said after talks with Ukraine`s acting defence minister that Washington was in discussions to provide $18 million (13 million euros) in military assistance and help Kiev "build highly effective armed forces" -- comments that are sure to irk the Kremlin.