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Fighting in Ukraine heats up despite Russian pullback

KIEV, Ukraine — Russia's withdrawal of troops from its border with Ukraine has eased fears in Ukraine and the West that President Vladimir Putin will launch a full-scale invasion.

But the risk of war has not receded, only shifted in a different direction. Daily clashes, one involving 300 armed separatists attacking a border post, signal that the low-intensity conflict that began in March has moved into a higher gear.

Ukrainian officials charge that Russia is training, arming and dispatching irregular forces, many of them Russians, including a surprising number of Chechens, to the troubled eastern region to keep Ukraine permanently destabilized.

"They are sending in an irregular army," Anton Gerashenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, told McClatchy Newspapers. "They want this to become another Somalia."

At least eight of the rebels killed in the battle over Donetsk airport on Monday and Tuesday were put in red coffins and transported to Russia for burial, Gera­shenko said.

Denis Pushilin, a leader of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, had put the number higher, saying 34 felled militants were transported to Russia for burial.

The new phase in the conflict began just after the assault on the airport, when Pushilin sent a public plea to Putin to send in military help.

That night, a convoy of cars and vans approached one border crossing, where border guards engaged in a firefight and blocked them. But at another point, some 40 truckloads of armed insurgents made it in, allowing as many as 1,000 militants to cross in. Guards were apparently bribed to open the gates.

The biggest clash occurred Thursday, when border police reported that nearly 300 militants stormed a border crossing at Stanychno, just northeast of Luhansk, firing rocket-propelled grenades and small weapons.

On Friday, about 80 militants, equipped with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms, attacked a border post at Dyakovo, about 50 miles south of Luhansk, border police said.

There were other signs of Russian involvement. On Wednesday, Ukrainian forces downed an unmanned Russian-made Orlan 10 surveillance drone over one of their checkpoints.

On Thursday, rebel forces shot down a helicopter near Slov­yansk, the rebels' stronghold, killing a major general in the Ukrainian National Guard and 11 others, bringing to more than 50 the number of soldiers and officers killed since mid April.

Ukrainian soldiers prepare to shoot a grenade launcher during a battle with pro-Russian separatists in Slovyansk on Saturday.

Associated Press

Ukrainian soldiers prepare to shoot a grenade launcher during a battle with pro-Russian separatists in Slovyansk on Saturday.

Fighting in Ukraine heats up despite Russian pullback 05/31/14 [Last modified: Saturday, May 31, 2014 11:34pm]
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