Seven soldiers 'missing', 3 dead in east Ukraine: military

Kiev (AFP) - Seven Ukrainian soldiers were missing in action after getting caught in an ambush in the conflict-torn east, while another three were killed in fighting, Kiev's military said Friday.

The latest clashes shook an already battered ceasefire deal between Kiev and pro-Moscow rebels, as President Petro Poroshenko held key talks with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Milan.

"Yesterday the fighters from a special forces battalion were going to a checkpoint near the village of Smile (Lugansk region) but came across an ambush," spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov told AFP.

He initially said that eleven soldiers were missing but later told AFP that four of them had returned to Ukrainian positions.

"They are safe now. We don't know about the fate of the others," he said.

The area near Smile, west of rebel hub Lugansk, has been a flashpoint in the conflict this week. A local pro-Kiev governor said Wednesday that more than 100 soldiers were surrounded by a group of rogue rebels who do not answer to the main separatist leadership.

The rogue rebels, Cossacks who are known as the "Donskoy army," do not recognise the truce deal signed on September 5.

Kiev's military also said Friday that three soldiers were killed over the past 24 hours as fighting with pro-Russian separatists engulfed several hotspots in eastern Ukraine, including the airport on the outskirts of rebel bastion Donetsk.

AFP correspondents heard artillery strikes from the direction of Donetsk airport, the scene of heavy fighting over the past week as separatists try to drive out a Ukrainian contingent still holding positions there.

The Donetsk city hall said shelling continued in the afternoon in residential areas, with one civilian reported dead.

Army spokesman Andriy Lysenko said the rebels had attacked the airport three times with mortar guns, tanks and artillery over the past day.

Fighting has reduced the state-of-the-art facility opened for the Euro 2012 football championships to a bullet-ridden carcass as rebels have pelted the terminals from nearby neighbourhoods.

Kiev said this week the separatists had been increasingly active on the coast of the Azov sea in the Donetsk region, where they took the town of Novoazovsk in August but where the government still controls the industrial hub of Mariupol.

Seven civilians died in a Mariupol suburb on Tuesday after shells exploded close to a funeral procession.

"Terrorists are moving forces to Shirokine," a coastal town about 10 kilometres east of Mariupol, Lysenko said. "These forces are being supplied straight from Russia."

Kiev accused Moscow of sending Russian regular troops into Ukraine in August, helping the insurgents take several key areas including east of Mariupol. Moscow has denied such reports.

Lysenko said Friday that 16 of 131 Russian soldiers captured in eastern Ukraine had been sent home after their families made contact with Ukraine's security services.