Ukraine moves to cut off separatist zone

Kiev (Ukraine) (AFP) - Ukraine announced passport controls around pro-Russian rebel areas Thursday, effectively acknowledging the breaking away of the separatist zone, as intense shelling in Donetsk stirred fears of renewed full-scale fighting.

Ukraine's border guards service said anyone crossing in or out of rebel areas will now have to present a passport. Ukrainians will be allowed through, while foreigners will "be sent to filtration points to determine the purpose of their visit" and will have to show a visa, a statement said.

The rule was explained as a security measure to seal off the eastern conflict areas.

However, the passport regime will amount to an internal border, underscoring the Russian-backed guerrillas' success in carving out two self-declared statelets centred on Donetsk and Lugansk. Already, Ukraine has lost control of its real border with Russia, which is in the hands of separatist guerrillas and Russian troops.

In another sign that Ukraine's government has given up regaining control of the east anytime soon, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Wednesday that subsidies and social payments, including pensions, would be halted to rebel-controled areas.

- New Cold War? -

The developments in Kiev came against a background of fierce shelling in Donetsk and other incidents that fed fears of a total breakdown in a peace plan signed in September.

The Ukrainian government's Western allies have expressed growing concern over the situation and on Thursday the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said a meeting would take place in 10 days to discuss the future of sanctions imposed on Russia.

"We have to see clearly what is happening on the ground from now until then," she said.

Poland's foreign minister, Grzegorz Schetyna, warned of a repeat of the Cold War which divided communist and democratic Europe for decades.

"We don't want a new Iron Curtain," he said.

And in a new blow to Russia, France's prime minister, Manuel Valls, said that Paris was for now sticking with its decision to suspend delivery of two French-built warships. Russia has already paid for them, but the deal was frozen in response to the Kremlin's role in Ukraine.

- Shelling and jitters-

Almost non-stop artillery fire rained down around the outskirts of Donetsk, where a shell had killed two teenagers late Wednesday while they were playing football.

Russia's investigative committee said it had opened a criminal case against Ukrainian forces over the incident, while Ukraine's military said a case had been opened against the separatists.

A spokesman for the military said that in the latest shelling across the conflict zone three Ukrainian servicemen were killed, as well as nine others wounded earlier. The separatists rarely release casualty figures.

He also repeated accusations that "Russian units and mercenaries" continued to cross into Ukraine. Russian denies directly aiding the rebels, although Russia soldiers and equipment have been frequently spotted by journalists in the conflict zone.

In a reflection of growing jitters, there were multiple rumours -- including a claim by a rebel commander -- of an assault by Ukrainian tanks against separatists in Yasynuvata, a small town near Donetsk. However, there were no signs of fighting, an AFP correspondent who visited the site of the supposed assault said.

In Moscow, the foreign ministry blamed Kiev for the crumbling truce, saying "it is obvious today that these agreements have been crudely violated by the Ukrainian side".

- Isolating 'terrorists' -

Officials said the passport regime will apply to the area of what the government calls the "anti-terrorist operation," but did not specify the exact outlines of the zone.

Sergiy Astakhov, an aide to the border guard chief, said the measure did not mean Kiev was giving up on recovering the separatist area.

"This is Ukrainian territory, but given that militants are temporarily controlling it, we have to carry out the necessary checks," Astakhov said.

"It is also connected with the fact that armed Russians are freely entering these territories through checkpoints on the Ukrainian-Russian frontier that are controlled by militants," he said.

The measure dovetailed with Yatsenyuk's announcement of the complete severing of subsidies to rebel-held areas, including pensions, though not heating gas and electricity.

Those cuts will translate into a massive reduction in funds going to regions ruled by the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic and Lugansk People's Republic, two rebel entities which held controversial leadership elections last Sunday.

Yatsenyuk said subsidies in rebel areas of both Donetsk and Lugansk add up to about $2.4 billion (1.8 billion euros) a year.

Viktor Zamyatin, an analyst at Razumkov Centre think tank in Kiev, said the government was right.

"How can you send money to a territory that you don't control?" he asked.

The September peace accord aimed to save Ukraine's unity, with rebel zones being given broad autonomy, but not independence. However in the wake of Sunday's rebel elections, President Petro Poroshenko said separatists had "torpedoed" the proposal and that parliament should withdraw the autonomy offer.

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