Pro-Russian rebels are planning a major counter-offensive against Ukrainian government forces after they receive tanks, armoured vehicles and other military equipment and an influx of troops trained in Russia, a separatist leader said in a video released yesterday.
The four-month conflict in eastern Ukraine has reached a critical phase, with Kiev and Western governments watching nervously to see if Russia will intervene in support of the increasingly besieged rebels – an intention that Moscow denies.
Alexander Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, said the rebels were in the process of receiving some 150 armoured vehicles, including 30 tanks, and 1,200 fighters who, he said, had spent four months training in Russia.
"They are joining at the most crucial moment," he said in a video reportedly recorded on Friday. He did not specify where the vehicles would come from.
Moscow has come under heavy Western sanctions over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region. It also faces accusations that it is supporting separatists in east Ukraine with troops and funds, which Russia denies.
On Friday's Ukraine said it had partially destroyed an armoured column that had crossed the border from Russia. Moscow made no threat of retaliation, saying it was a "fantasy" that its armoured vehicles had entered the country.
Mr Zakharchenko, a Ukrainian, took over from Alexander Borodai, a Russian citizen, last week, and his combative comments appear to dash hopes that changes at the top of the rebel leadership might signal willingness to end hostilities.
A convoy of 280 Russian trucks carrying water, food and medicine has been stuck on the border, with Ukraine concerned it could serve as a Trojan horse to bring in military supplies or create a pretext for armed intervention.
But the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been checking the contents to make sure there is no military equipment, said last night that a deal had been struck to allow the convoy to enter the country.