UK & World News

  • 1 September 2014, 13:32

Russia Warns Ukraine Troops To Pull Back

Ukrainian forces must pull back from areas of eastern Ukraine where they can harm civilian targets, Russia's foreign minister has warned.

Sergei Lavrov spoke amid reports of fierce fighting for Luhansk airport between Ukrainian troops and Russian tanks - the latest allegation of direct Russian involvement in the conflict.

Ukrainian forces have been ordered to pull back from the airport in the face of the onslaught, a military spokesman said.

Ukraine's Defence Minister Valeriy Geletey said that Russian units were moving into other towns in the region, including the largest city of the region Donetsk.

"The information that Russian troops are there has been confirmed," he said.

"We are fighting Russia and it is Russia which is deciding what will happen in Donbass," he told Ukraine's Inter channel, referring to the informal name of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.

Mr Lavrov again denied that Russian troops were in Ukraine and said he hoped talks taking place on Monday in the Belarussian capital Minsk today will focus on agreeing an immediate, unconditional ceasefire.

Speaking in the east Siberian city of Yakutsk on Monday, Russia's President Vladimir Putin accused Europe of ignoring the Ukrainian army "directly targeting its fire on residential areas".

He said he hoped "common sense will prevail" and that Russia and the West would not harm each other with further sanctions.

A rights group that works to expose Russian army abuses has claimed that up to 15,000 soldiers have been sent to Ukraine by Moscow in the last two months, and several hundred may have died in combat.

Valentina Melnikova, head of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, a prominent organisation representing the families of military servicemen, said that some 7,000-8,000 Russian troops are believed to be in Ukraine at present.

"Military commanders are conducting a secret special operation," said Melnikova, who is a member of the defence ministry's public council.

Meanwhile, a Ukrainian military spokesman said a rescue operation was continuing for two seamen missing in the Azov Sea after pro-Russian separatists attacked a Ukrainian navy vessel for the first time.

Eight other seamen survived the attack and were being treated for wounds and burns after the vessel was hit by artillery from the shore.

Separatists in the region claimed responsibility for the attack on social media.

Writing on the site VKontake, former separatist military commander Igor Strelkov said: "The militia have dealt the enemy their first naval defeat."

Although pro-Russian rebels have been fighting government forces since April, this is the first incident at sea.

Separatists have made significant gains in several towns close to the Azov Sea in recent days and are said to have set their sights on Mariupol. 

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko said the events of the past few days have shown that Russia has launched "a direct and open aggression" against Ukraine.

Leading American senators have called for the US to send weapons to help Ukraine defend itself against what they called "a Russian invasion".

Democrat Robert Mendez, who runs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN: "We should provide the Ukrainians with the type of defensive weapons that will impose a cost upon Putin for further aggression."

The call was echoed by former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who told CBS's Face the Nation that Mr Putin was "an old KGB colonel that wants to restore the Russian empire".

Earlier, the European Union gave Russia a week to scale back its intervention in Ukraine, warning of further sanctions.

China said it opposes additional sanctions against Russia and has urged world leaders to find a political solution to the crisis.

Mr Putin has consistently denied sending in troops, but has defiantly called for immediate talks on "statehood" for southern and eastern Ukraine.