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Marking Independence Day, Ukraine's president vows to defeat rebels

Marking Independence Day, Ukraine's president vows to defeat rebels
Ukrainian soldiers march through Kiev's Independence Square on Aug. 24 in observance of the 24th anniversary of the country's independence from the Soviet Union. (Efrem Lukatsky / Associated Press)

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko vowed Monday to deploy thousands more troops and hundreds of new armored vehicles, and warned Russia-backed separatists that they will be defeated in their quest to divide Ukraine from its Western allies.

At a military parade marking 24 years since Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union, Poroshenko claimed Russia has amassed 50,000 troops on Ukraine's eastern border and has an additional 9,000 aiding the rebels from within the two enclaves held by the separatists.

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"We must get through the 25th year of independence as if on brittle ice. We must understand that the smallest misstep could be fatal," the president and confectionary magnate told a crowd of thousands gathered at central Kiev's Independence Square. "The war for independence is still ongoing."

The vast square was the scene of a three-month rebellion that began in December 2013 and led to the flight into Russian exile by former President Viktor Yanukovich, who angered Western-oriented Ukrainians with his effort to derail a trade and political agreement with the European Union.

The departure of Yanukovich, a reliable ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, spurred Russia's seizure and annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in early 2014 and encouraged the Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine to rise up against Kiev forces in April of last year. Since then, nearly 7,000 people -- many of them civilians -- have died in the fighting, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates.

Poroshenko joined the Independence Day crowd in a moment of silence in memory of the more than 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers who have lost their lives in the 16-month-old war.

He expressed commitment to a European-brokered peace plan signed on Feb. 12, and credited the deal with significantly slowing the death toll over the last six months.

Fighting has flared this month, however, with nine people killed on a single day last week, according to the Ukraine Crisis Media Center.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 57-nation alliance that has hundreds of monitors deployed throughout Ukraine, has recorded dozens of cease-fire violations in recent days. The monitors also noted in their daily report on Saturday the disappearance of heavy guns and tanks that had been surrendered to OSCE-monitored armories this past spring under the terms of the peace plan.

Poroshenko also addressed soldiers at an airfield near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, which has been the target of separatist aggression since the war began but has remained under government control. He said thousands more troops would be deployed to defeat "Russian aggression" and that Ukraine would be providing those fighters with more and better equipment.

"By the end of the year, we will provide the armed forces with 300 armored vehicles, 400 cars, 30,000 missiles and ammunition and over 3,000 small arms," Poroshenko said, according to the Ukrinform news agency.

Poroshenko later flew to Berlin to meet with French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss ways to shore up the Feb. 12 peace plan, known as the Minsk agreement as it was forged in the Belarus capital with the European leaders' mediation.

Putin, who was also a party to the Minsk accord, wasn't invited to the Berlin meeting, Russia's Sputnik news agency said. It cited unidentified European media and officials as calling the Kremlin leader's omission "a huge mistake."

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