Pressure for talks mounts as shelling rumbles on in Ukraine

Ukraine reshuffled top defence posts on Thursday as fighting raged on between government forces and pro-Russian rebels amid mounting diplomatic pressure to agree to talks on a new ceasefire.

Donetsk: Ukraine reshuffled top defence posts on Thursday as fighting raged on between government forces and pro-Russian rebels amid mounting diplomatic pressure to agree to talks on a new ceasefire.

Western-backed President Petro Poroshenko named a new defence chief and army head as his forces said they were pressing on with an offensive to oust separatist insurgents from the restive east of the country.

Speaking after his confirmation by parliament new Defence Minister Valeriy Geletey pledged to deliver a knockout blow to the rebels after Poroshenko this week ditched a 10-day truce.

"I am sure that Ukraine will win and believe me that there will be a victory parade," Geletey, a former police commander, told lawmakers.

Ukrainian troops backed by tanks and bomber jets have stepped up the fighting since the end of the ceasefire that failed to stem 11 weeks of violence during which some 460 people have been killed.

But Ukraine`s weak armed forces face a mammoth task to defeat the rebels and on Thursday the border service said that nine guards were wounded when shells hit a key border crossing with Russia that Kiev had celebrated retaking just days earlier.

Overall, rebels fighters launched 16 attacks on government checkpoints during the past 24 hours, a statement from the defence ministry said early Thursday.The latest clashes came amid a flurry of diplomacy aimed at convincing Kiev and the separatists to agree to a fresh round of indirect talks to hammer out a new ceasefire.

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Russian leader Vladimir Putin in a phone call to help organise a fresh meeting of the so-called Contact Group on the crisis by this weekend.

The two European heads urged him to persuade the pro-Moscow separatists that Ukraine and its Western allies accuse the Kremlin of backing to negotiate.

The Kremlin, for its part, said Putin "expressed his deep concern" over the growing number of civilians who had been killed as well as a sharp increase in the number of refugees from southeastern Ukraine in Russia.

Both Kiev and the separatists refuse to negotiate directly but are under pressure to set up a third round of "consultations" involving the rebels, former president Leonid Kuchma, a Russian envoy and an international observer.

Ukraine`s foreign minister agreed at a meeting with his Russian, French and German counterparts in Berlin on Wednesday that the new talks for a fresh truce should be held this week.

Insurgent leaders said on Thursday they were prepared to take part only if Moscow and international observers were behind them.

"If Russia and the OSCE make a proposal to us then we are willing to participate in consultations," Andriy Purgin, deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People`s Republic, told AFP.

Russia`s Interfax news agency cited an unnamed source close to the talks as saying that a fresh meeting could take place Friday.

Where exactly the talks would be held is not clear as previous meetings have happened in the rebel-held city of Donetsk but Kiev appears reluctant to have the next round there. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has warned that Ukraine faces "an explosion of violence" if the truce talks are not held.

Kiev though has made clear that it wants to retake control of its leaky border with Russia -- across which it accuses Moscow of sending fighters and weapons -- before it commits to a new ceasefire.

Highlighting its shaky control, Ukraine`s border service on Thursday accused Russian military helicopters of breaching its borders by crossing briefly into Ukrainian airspace at several points along the frontier.

Despite international agreement over the need for talks, the West and Russia remain at loggerheads over settling the conflict in Ukraine and the threat of fresh sanctions against Moscow remains on the table.

Putin has charged Poroshenko bears full responsibility for the latest deaths while Washington has backed Ukraine`s right to defend the country from separatist "aggression".

Amid the diplomatic tug-of-war, away from the frontline the security situation in rebel-held territory is deteriorating.

An AFP journalist on Thursday saw the bodies of three traffic policemen who had been shot dead lying in a street of Donetsk.
Police said that two unknown gunmen in camouflage had opened fire at the officers, killing three and seriously wounding a forth before making off.

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