Ukraine crisis: 'We are getting tanks and reinforcements from Russia,' says separatist leader

Prime minister of Donetsk People's Republic says rebels are in the process of receiving some 150 armoured vehicles, including 30 tanks, and 1,200 fighters who he says have spent four months training in Russia

Ukrainian rebels are receiving new armoured vehicles and fighters trained in Russia, with which they plan to counter-attack against government forces, a separatist leader said in a video released on Saturday.

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 Moscow denies.

Alexander Zakharchenko, 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 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 and accusations it is supporting separatists in east Ukraine with fighters, arms and funds. Russia denies those charges.

Zakharchenko's comments came a day after Ukraine said it partially destroyed an armoured column that had crossed the border from Russia. The report triggered a sell-off in global stocks, with markets fearful of open confrontation between Russia and Western-backed Ukraine.

But Moscow made no threat of retaliation, instead saying it was a “fantasy” that its armoured vehicles had entered its neighbour's territory. In Washington, the White House said it could not confirm that Russian vehicles had been attacked on Ukrainian soil.

The rebels, who have ceded ground to government forces in recent weeks, have been promising a counter-offensive for several days but have yet to launch one.

Ukrainian native Zakharchenko took over from Russian citizen Alexander Borodai last week and his combative comments will probably dash hopes that changes at the top of the rebel leadership might signal willingness to end hostilities.

Adding to the tensions, Russia and Ukraine have been at loggerheads for days over a convoy of 280 Russian trucks carrying water, food and medicine, which remained about 20 km (12 miles) from the Ukrainian border, unmoved since Friday.

Officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross said most procedures had been agreed by Russia and Ukraine but the two sides still needed to figure out how to provide security before the convoy moves ahead under the ICRC's aegis. It was not clear when a deal on security could be agreed.

Russia says it is a purely humanitarian mission in support of civilians in areas hit by the conflict, but Ukraine is concerned it could serve as a Trojan Horse to infiltrate military supplies or create a pretext for armed intervention.

The crisis has dragged relations between Russia and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War and set off a round of trade restrictions that are hurting struggling economies both in Russia and Europe. The United Nations said this week that an estimated 2,086 people had been killed, with nearly 5,000 wounded.

The Finnish President, Sauli Niinisto, held talks in Kiev with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, a day after discussing how to settle the crisis with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I do not see a great risk of an outright war,” Niinisto said. “My hopefulness is based on the fact that communication is open, at least by a crack.”

France said a meeting of Ukrainian, Russian, German and French foreign ministers scheduled in Berlin on Sunday could be a first step towards a peace summit. Drivers with the Russian convoy Drivers with the Russian convoy

A rebel Internet news outlet said on Saturday that separatist fighters had killed 30 members of a Ukrainian government battalion in fighting in Luhansk province, a rebel-held area of eastern Ukraine adjacent to the Russian border.

A Ukrainian military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, contradicted the rebel assertions. He said three Ukrainian servicemen had been killed over the past 24 hours.

In the past few hours Ukrainian security forces had spotted Russian drones and a helicopter crossing illegally into Ukraine's airspace, Lysenko told a news briefing.

He denied Kiev's forces were firing artillery on Donetsk, one of two rebel strongholds in the east, where a Reuters reporter said the sound of explosions was audible in the city centre on Saturday.

The Donetsk city administration said four people were killed in shelling that destroyed homes and set several buildings on fire.

The momentum on the ground is with the Ukrainian forces, who have pushed the separatists out of large swathes of territory and nearly encircled them in Donetsk and Luhansk. Kiev says it now controls the road linking the two cities.

Russia says the Ukrainian offensive is causing a humanitarian catastrophe for the civilian population in the two cities. It accuses Kiev's forces of indiscriminately using heavy weapons in residential areas, an allegation Ukraine denies.

In the past week, three senior rebel leaders have been removed from their posts, pointing to mounting disagreement over how to turn the tide of the fighting back in their favour.

Lysenko, the Ukrainian military spokesman, said he had reports of rebel fighters abandoning their posts in Luhansk, and preparing to leave Donetsk and seek safe haven in Russia.

“A mood of panic is spreading and rebels are trying to leave through the small gaps that remain,” he said.

In Donetsk, the red, blue and black flag of separatists was flying on a pole in front of the headquarters. Ten people armed with Kalashnikov rifles were standing on guard outside the main entrance in mismatched camouflage.

“Why should we flee? People are still coming and filling our ranks. Those who have lost their houses to Ukrainian shelling, what else would they do but fight back?,” said a fighter who gave his name as Communist.

Reuters

Sport
The sun rises over St Andrews golf course, but will it be a new dawn for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club?
sportAnd it's Yes to women (at the R&A)
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week