Russian and Ukrainian officials traded accusations Thursday about gearing up for a resumption of full-fledged war in eastern Ukraine as European monitors reported a steady rise in what appeared to be uniformed fighters crossing in from Russia.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich denied that Moscow has sent any troops or armaments across Ukraine's border to reinforce pro-Russia separatists who have seized the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and severed most ties to the rest of Ukraine.
"Neither are there any Russian soldiers in Ukraine, nor have any crossed the border," said Lukashevich, repeating Moscow's position that a return to intense fighting with Ukrainian government troops would be "a catastrophe."
Russian officials have denied throughout the 7-month-old conflict that they have any role in the fighting that has taken more than 4,000 lives since April.
At a Vienna meeting Thursday of diplomats from the 57 member countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russian envoy Andrei Kelin accused the Kiev government of moving tanks and troops to the separatist-held territory in preparation for renewed fighting.
"We have information about seven cases when army vehicles were pulled to Donbass," Kelin told the OSCE gathering, referring to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that span the western side of the Don River basin. He said the movements involved tanks, anti-aircraft artillery, multiple-rocket launchers and short-range ballistic missiles, according to a Tass news agency dispatch from the meeting.
OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier told European Parliament members at a gathering in Brussels that the alliance monitoring mission had observed the most intense shelling in the area east of Mariupol, a vital Ukrainian government-controlled port on the Sea of Azov that is a main gateway to the Black and Mediterranean seas.
Russian armored columns entered southeastern Ukraine along the Sea of Azov in August, seizing towns leading up to Mariupol and engaging Ukrainian government forces who had surrounded the separatists and threatened to drive them from their Donetsk stronghold. A Sept. 5 cease-fire brokered by the OSCE tentatively froze the assault on Mariupol, but it has intensified this week, the European monitors have reported.
In Kiev, Interior Ministry advisor Zorian Shkiriak told journalists that Ukrainian security and defense forces had crafted a coordinated plan for countering what has been reported in local media as an imminent attack by the Russian-backed separatists.
"The Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry and the SBU [State Security Service] have worked out a systemic model of cooperation in combating Russian aggression," Shkiriak said, according to the Ukrinform news agency.
Earlier this week, NATO and monitors of the OSCE independently reported sighting multiple convoys of tanks, armored vehicles and high-powered artillery flooding into the war zone from the area of the separatist-controlled border crossings from Russia. NATO top commander Gen. Philip Breedlove said Wednesday that the troops and hardware were Russian.
In its daily report, the OSCE said Thursday that its special monitoring team had witnessed a rise in the number of uniformed men and women crossing into separatist-controlled territory, with 665 counted over the last week.
The security alliance, to which both Russia and Ukraine belong, also reported the sighting of a "Cargo 200" transport -- the Russian army reference for vehicles used to evacuate the remains of soldiers killed in action.
Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council also reported the movement of five vehicles carrying mortuary workers from the Rostov region, just east of the Ukrainian border, council spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kiev.
Last week, Lysenko claimed as many as 200 separatists and their Russian backers had been killed in a fierce fight for control of the Donetsk airport that has raged since May.
Lukashevich, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Moscow planned to send another convoy Friday of what it says is humanitarian aid to the separatist-held areas. The convoy is to include 82 truckloads of aid.
Russia has already dispatched at least six large convoys in recent weeks through separatist-controlled border crossings without the inspection or consent of Ukrainian government officials.