Ukrainian military brass and pro-Russia separatists have abandoned all pretense of adhering to a cease-fire, sending massive reinforcements Friday to their eastern Ukraine battlegrounds and engaging in a fierce battle for control of the devastated airport in Donetsk.
Six government troops were killed within 24 hours and 18 were wounded, Col. Andriy Lysenko of the National Security and Defense Council told reporters at his daily briefing in Kiev, the capital.
The command center of the "anti-terrorist operation," as the Kiev leadership calls its forward base for the fight against separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, said Ukrainian positions had been attacked 82 times overnight Thursday to Friday, the Ukrinform news agency reported.
Separatist leaders told Russian media in Moscow that they had in effect won control of the Sergei Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk, the modern hub built three years ago that had been Ukraine's second-busiest air travel facility. The sleek glass-and-steel main terminal has been shattered by almost daily artillery bombardment since May, when separatists moved to seize the strategic asset but met strong resistance.
Political leaders of the separatists' self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics were in the Belarus capital of Minsk on Friday, where negotiations among Russian, Ukrainian, rebel representatives and European diplomats had been scheduled earlier. The talks were canceled Monday after a preliminary meeting of French, German, Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers failed to break an impasse over the terms of a much-violated Sept. 5 cease-fire.
Under the truce signed by all parties in Minsk more than four months ago, government and separatist forces were supposed to have stopped all shelling and gunfire, withdrawn heavy weaponry, defined a static front line and exchanged all prisoners. Only a partial swap of captives taken over the last nine months has been accomplished.
Russia's representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Andrei Kelin, blamed the Ukrainian government the thwarting of diplomacy.
"There is a grave risk of deterioration of the events, since we can see quite a few signs of Kiev’s pressing forward with a forcible solution of the problem," Kelin told Russia's Tass news agency. "Rotation of the military contingent is in full swing, as is the fourth wave of drafting to the armed forces."
Lysenko, the Ukrainian security spokesman, likewise accused the separatists of massing arms and troops along the 220 miles of front lines dividing the forces battling for territory in the heavily industrialized eastern regions.
"In Horlivka, there is a 3-kilometer-long [2-mile] column of tanks heading in the direction of Ukrainian positions," Lysenko said of the town that straddles government- and separatist-held territory north of Donetsk.
Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko told Russian media a day earlier that his forces had taken control of the Donetsk airport. But Ukrainian officials said it was still in government hands and ordered reinforcements to the venue that is now of more symbolic than strategic value and will need thorough rebuilding after the conflict ends.
At least 4,800 people have died in the two eastern Ukraine regions since the separatists were inspired by Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula to seize government and security facilities in the predominantly Russian-speaking east.
Ukraine, the European Union, NATO and the United States have accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of instigating the territorial seizures and sending in weapons and mercenaries to back the separatists. The Kremlin denies having any hand in what it calls a civil war in the former Soviet republic.
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