Ukraine clashes kill eight, hurting push for new truce

Dmitry Zaks
Servicemen walk past anti-tank mines in the Lugansk region on August 27, 2015 (AFP Photo/Anatolii Stepanov)

Servicemen walk past anti-tank mines in the Lugansk region on August 27, 2015

Servicemen walk past anti-tank mines in the Lugansk region on August 27, 2015 (AFP Photo/Anatolii Stepanov)

Kiev (AFP) - Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels on Thursday reported the death of eight people in fresh clashes that endanger nascent talks on a new truce agreement for the war-torn separatist east.

Government spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said seven Ukrainian servicemen had been killed and 13 injured in fighting that centred mostly around the pro-Russian republic of Donetsk.

"For the first time in several days, the enemy has resumed using artillery rockets," Motuzyanyk told reporters in Kiev.

The military command of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic said a Ukrainian sniper had killed one woman and shelling injured another 12 people overnight.

An upsurge in violence in the Donetsk and neighbouring Lugansk regions that broke out in mid-August has renewed fears of full-scale warfare returning to the edge of the European Union's unstable eastern front.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande -- co-sponsors of an increasingly ineffective six-month-old armistice -- reaffirmed support for the deal on Monday during talks in Berlin with Ukraine's Western-backed leader Petro Poroshenko.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is overseeing a separate set of discussions between the warring sides and Russia aimed at resolving all political conflicts and halting the fighting by the year's end.

The OSCE said the parties on Wednesday agreed to prepare a new temporary ceasefire that would be enforced around schools in the war zone once classes resume on September 1.

The Minsk negotiators "find it essential that once the school year begins, the fighting halts along the line of contact for the first week of classes," the Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted OSCE mediator Martin Sajdik as saying.

Sajdik said the rebels and Kiev officials had agreed to swap maps and other details that could help lead to a formal temporary truce announcement in the coming days.

One of the two separatist envoys to Minsk expressed cautious optimism about the possibility of guns soon falling silent at least across some of the battle-scarred industrial zone.

"All the sides agreed to cease fire and I personally think this will happen," Lugansk militia negotiator Vladislav Deinego said in a statement carried by his separatist region's official news site.

"However, how long this (truce) will last -- that, for now is hard to say," Deinego added.

Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russia of orchestrating and arming the uprising in revenge for Kiev's decision last year to pull out of Moscow's orbit and hitch its future to the European Union.

The United Nations estimates the conflict has killed more than 6,800 people since April 2014 and has driven at least 1.4 million from their homes.

- Pushing for peacekeepers -

Poroshenko has been jetting across Europe this week in a bid to remind leaders -- increasingly preoccupied with their own migrant crisis -- of the importance of ending the Ukraine conflict and returning a sense of security to Russia's western border.

East European nations that were once ruled by Moscow in the communist era fear the Kremlin is looking for a way to split EU heads of state and re-establish control over lands that were once part of the Russian and Soviet empires.

The pro-Western leader said Thursday he still saw a possible international peacekeeping presence in the war zone -- an option rejected outright by the rebels and Moscow -- as one way of containing Russia's purported expansionist threat.

"Ukraine will now constantly keep insisting on one thing," Poroshenko said during a joint press appearance in Brussels with European Commission chief Jean Claude Juncker.

"You either introduce peacekeepers on the basis of a UN Security resolution... or you deploy a special EU mission that we will also be asking the European Union to discuss."

Kiev's Western allies have expressed fears that such a foreign presence near Russia might only further upset the Kremlin and raise tensions across Europe.