Seven Ukraine troops die in worst clashes in two months

Ukraine said Tuesday seven of its soldiers had been killed and 14 wounded in the bloodiest clashes with pro-Russian separatists in two months.

AFP| Updated: Jul 19, 2016, 17:18 PM IST

Kiev: Ukraine said Tuesday seven of its soldiers had been killed and 14 wounded in the bloodiest clashes with pro-Russian separatists in two months.

The announcement -- the highest daily death toll since Ukraine reported seven of its soldiers dying on May 24 -- follows a flurry of talks between world leaders and Moscow on stopping the 26-month conflict.

"In the past 24 hours, as a result of military operations, seven Ukrainian servicemen died and 14 were injured," military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters.

Lysenko told AFP the fighting had "become very, very heated" in the past few days.

"Things have escalated for the simple reason that this is what (the rebels) want," Lysenko said. "They do not want to live in peace."

The former Soviet republic has been riven by fighting that has claimed nearly 9,500 lives and shattered Moscow`s relations with the West.

Kiev and its allies accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of plotting and arming the revolt in retaliation for Ukraine`s ouster of its Moscow-backed president in a February 2014 pro-EU revolution that infuriated Putin.

The Kremlin annexed Ukraine`s Crimea peninsula after flooding it with troops and organising an independence referendum that only a handful of Moscow`s allies accept.

Putin denies backing the rebels while admitting that some off-duty or vacationing soldiers may have "followed the call of their heart" and joined the insurgents` cause.

But few of Kiev`s allies believe his claims.

The resulting chill in relations has complicated the West`s work with Russia in trying to bring an end to the Syrian war -- a conflict that has seen Russia continue to back the ruling regime and bombard areas controlled by Western-backed rebel groups.The latest violence follows a series of negotiations between EU leaders and Putin about ways to halting one of Europe`s bloodiest conflicts since the 1990s Balkans wars.

US Secretary of State John Kerry also raised the issue during a visit to Moscow last week.

But neither Kiev nor the insurgents have followed the steps agreed upon in a February 2015 truce deal that was negotiated with the help of Germany and France.

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) report that neither side has withdrawn its heaviest weapons from the front line -- one of the first points of the pact.

The heaviest clashes have come along the 30-kilometre-wide (19-mile-wide) buffer zone that the sides agreed to set up during last year`s peace negotiations in the Belarussian capital Minsk.

The self-proclaimed "people`s republics" of Donetsk and Lugansk now control most parts of the Ukrainian industrial heartland and are hoping to stage their own elections that would effectively split them away from Kiev.

Ukraine counters that the polls must be conducted under its own rules and result in the rebel-run regions enjoying only partial autonomy for a set number of years.

There was no immediate response from the Donetsk rebel commanders about Kiev`s death toll report.

But its official news site the Donetsk separatist leader Aleksander Zakharchenko had signed a petition addressed to the UN Security Council demanding that it put more pressure on Kiev to end bloodshed in the EU`s backyard.