At least 12 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine in the worst outbreak of fighting in more than a week, further imperiling the tenuous three-week-old ceasefire between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces that seemingly sputters on in little more than name alone.
Ukrainian army officials said at least nine soldiers were killed and 27 wounded in just one day of clashes, seven of them in a single attack by rebels close to Donetsk airport, which has been the focus of fierce battles as the separatists try to rout Kiev's forces from their last foothold in the city.
Three civilians were also killed and five wounded by shelling overnight Sunday on a residential neighborhood in the north of the city, officials in the rebel stronghold said in a statement.
The latest violence further belies the insistence of both Moscow and Kiev that the ceasefire is holding, a line that is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain to a skeptical Ukrainian public. The loss of the strategically and symbolically important airport would likely shatter even that superficial peace.
Colonel Andriy Lysenko, a military spokesman, told reporters in the Ukrainian capital Monday that the seven troops had died when an armored vehicle was hit by fire from a rebel tank.
"During the evening attack, the Ukrainian armored transporter, with its crew and a paratroop unit, took a direct hit from a tank," he said. "Intensive fighting broke out. Our paratroopers sustained losses."
Lysenko reported that the army had repelled the attack, killing 50 rebels and destroying three tanks. However, the Donetsk city council said that fighting continued around the airport Monday afternoon.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko insisted last week that "the most dangerous part of the war is over." But the contention that his plan to bring peace to the fractured country remains on course is increasingly falling on deaf ears. Some of Poroshenko's key government allies have defected, and a fresh round of elections is scheduled for October 26, following the dissolution of the Ukrainian parliament in late August.
Russia, Ukraine, and separatist leaders signed an agreement September 20 requiring all heavy artillery to be removed from the front line, and providing for the establishment of a buffer zone between the opposing forces to help reinforce the ceasefire.
While fighting has diminished under the ceasefire, it has never halted completely.
At least 3,500 people have been killed in the Ukrainian conflict since April, when violence broke out in the restive east following the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March.
The east has a large ethnic Russian population, and many there felt disenfranchised by the toppling of former president and Moscow ally Viktor Yanukovych by the Euromaidan movement in February.
Russia insists that the separatist groups that have since declared breakaway republics in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are acting of their own accord, and denies sending either weapons or troops across the border.
The West, however, insists there is clear evidence of Russian involvement, and has imposed sanctions on Moscow and reinforced NATO's presence along its eastern frontier, further angering Putin. Last week, NATO reported a pull-back by Russian troops close to the Ukrainian border, raising hopes that tensions had been defused.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday in Berlin that the European Union was far from even considering easing sanctions on Moscow.
The situation in the country was "anything but satisfactory," Merkel said. "The elementary question of the ceasefire is not yet cleared up, still less the future status and cooperation between the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and the Ukrainian central government."
Merkel added: "There is no protection of the border along the entire Luhansk and Donetsk region— no control, no buffer zones, and all of that is the minimum condition for us to be able to consider revoking sanctions. Unfortunately, we are a very long way away from that."
In a show of rising anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine, nationalists on Sunday toppled a statue of Vladimir Lenin amid a cheering crowd in Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city and what was once considered Yanukovych's political base.
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