Kiev: Thirteen soldiers and civilians have died in Ukraine, officials said on Monday, in the deadliest surge of violence since the government and pro-Russian insurgents struck a shaky truce in their five-month conflict.
Nearly a month after tense talks yielded a peace pact and a ceasefire agreement envisioning a buffer zone on the front line, a lasting solution to the insurgency, which has killed more than 3,200 people, seemed no closer.
National Security and Defence Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko said rebels had killed nine soldiers over the last 24 hours, including paratroopers travelling in an armoured vehicle.
Three civilians were killed in the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk, and another local person died in Makiyivka, a city just northwest of Donetsk, when a shell hit a residential house, local officials said.
A Russian army delegation of some 70 people arrived last week in eastern Ukraine, headed by the deputy commander of Russian ground forces Alexander Lentsov. Several members of the delegation travelled to Donetsk to urge the separatists to respect the truce.
"We are going to convince (the rebels), use reason with them. That is the most important thing," Lentsov told Ukrainian television at the weekend, in rare public remarks by a Russian military commander.
Moscow denies having sent regular troops to eastern Ukraine, but Kiev argues that large contingents of soldiers and heavy equipment from Russia were behind a rebel offensive last month that seized control of a chunk of territory and forced the government to agree to the ceasefire.
The European-brokered deal finalised a week ago in Minsk commits the Ukrainian army and rebels to cease fire and to separate themselves with a 30-kilometre buffer zone.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko stressed that the army would continue fighting if the insurgents failed to silence their guns and announced yesterday that the army has created a "reliable frontline" in the east.
Military officials said Monday that separatists in tanks staged repeated attacks on the airport outside Donetsk, a strategic flashpoint, which were repelled by the army, despite losses.
In a symbolic act of defiance against Russia, activists in Ukraine's second biggest city of Kharkiv toppled the country's largest statue of Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in the main square.
The eastern hub of 1.5 million people avoided the conflict after an initial outbreak of unrest, but it lies close to the Russian border and is considered by Moscow as culturally Russian, rather than Ukrainian.