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Ukrainian servicemen at a position on the front line with Russia-backed separatists in the Lugansk region Ukrainian servicemen at a position on the front line with Russia-backed separatists in the Lugansk region  (AFP or licensors)

Ukrainian and Russian rebels blame each other for fresh fighting

Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists have blamed each other for an outbreak of fighting in the country's rebel-held east that killed and injured several soldiers. The Ukrainian president called the clashes an attempt to derail efforts to end the conflict, which has killed more thousands.

By Stefan J. Bos  

Ukraine's military said its forces on the eastern frontline came under heavy rebel shelling. It claimed one soldier was killed and four wounded in Tuesday's battle near Zolote, a frontline village in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine. But Russian-backed separatists blame Ukrainian government troops for the latest fighting. They said Ukrainian soldiers tried to break through their lines but were got caught in a minefield.

The separatist rebels stressed that two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and three wounded.  They also said that the Ukrainian shelling damaged civilian infrastructure in the villages of Kirovsk and Donetskiy.

It was the latest in a series of clashes that have rocked the troubled region. Residents have often been shaken by fighting here. The conflict has already killed 14,000 people since 2014.

Some fighters who have since returned home from the front lines still carry the emotional scars of the war. Roman Zinenko is now a taxi driver. But he was a volunteer in the Ukrainian army where he fought in a notorious battle for the town of Ilovaisk.

Many of his fellow soldiers were killed or injured. "There we were continuously ambushed on our military convoy for several kilometers," he recalls. "It was like a shooting range, and we were the targets. "

Writing books

Zinenko, who also writes books about his experiences, added that his wife warned him that he would never come back from Ilovaisk. "She said I am always thinking and writing about it. And we will have to live with it."

Russia has always denied it supports the rebels with weapons and troops, but Ukrainian soldiers claim they have seen them.  Ukraine's new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had hoped to end the clashes. He denounced Tuesday's attack as a "cynical provocation" to further derail an already shaky ceasefire.  

During a meeting in Paris in December, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany pledged to ensure a lasting ceasefire in fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists.

They also made a deal to exchange prisoners. But no progress was made, however, on key contentious issues. They include a timeline for local elections in eastern Ukraine and when Ukraine can get back control of its borders in the rebel-held region.

Amid the tensions, President Zelenskiy said Tuesday he would call a meeting of his Security Council to discuss the situation. His announcement reflected mounting concerns that it will become more difficult to end this bloody conflict.

Listen to the report by Stefan Bos
18 February 2020, 17:10