US says Russia 'directly involved' in Ukraine fighting

Top rebel leader admitted Russian troops fighting alongside insurgents

Donetsk: The United States on Thursday accused Russia of being "directly involved" in fighting in war-torn east Ukraine, after rebels appeared to seize swathes of territory from retreating government forces.

"An increasing number of Russian troops are intervening directly in fighting on Ukrainian territory," US ambassador to Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt wrote on Twitter.

"Russia has also sent its newest air defense systems including the SA-22 into eastern Ukraine and is now directly involved in the fighting," he said.

After weeks of government offensives that have seen troops push deep into the last rebel bastions, the tide appeared to be turning once again in the four-month conflict, prompting a nervous government in Kiev to call on NATO for help.

AFP journalists yesterday saw no signs of government troops on a road southeast of the rebel-held city of Donetsk, while a pro-Kiev volunteer commander wrote that government forces were surrounded in the key transport hub of Ilovaysk.

There has been increasing concern in Kiev and the West of Russia's direct involvement in the conflict - a charge Moscow has repeatedly denied.

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk said NATO and Polish intelligence have evidence of regular Russian army units operating in Ukraine.

French President Francois Hollande warned today it would be "intolerable and unacceptable" if Russian troops were on the ground in Ukraine.

Ukraine's government claimed yesterday that a battalion of Russian soldiers had set up a military headquarters near the village of Pobeda, around 50 kilometres southeast of Donetsk.

A top rebel leader yesterday admitted Russian troops were fighting alongside his insurgents, but said they all volunteered to spend their "holidays" battling for the rebels.

"Many Russian soldiers are joining us who would prefer to spend their holidays not at the beach but in the ranks of their brothers fighting for the freedom of Donbass," Alexander Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, said in an online statement.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Kremlin was "not interested in breaking up" Ukraine, but said Russia will send more aid convoys to Ukraine "in the nearest future", despite complaints from Kiev they breach its sovereignty.

( Source : AFP )
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