NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine (AP) — As shelling in eastern Ukraine spread to a new front, Ukraine’s president flew to Minsk for a meeting Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the fighting that has engulfed Ukraine’s separatist regions.
Towering columns of smoke rose Tuesday from outside a city in Ukraine’s far southeast after what residents said was a heavy artillery barrage. Ukraine accused separatist rebels and their alleged Russian backers of trying to expand the conflict.
It was the second straight day that attacks were reported in the vicinity of Novoazovsk, which is in eastern Ukraine’s separatist Donetsk region but previously had seen little fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels.
Poroshenko and Putin have not met face-to-face since a June ceremony in Normandy. The Ukrainian president was expected to face pressure to find a negotiated settlement – not a military victory – to the fighting that began in April. That was the option called for by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a visit to Kiev last weekend.
Local residents in Novoazovsk, some hastily packing up in order to flee, told The Associated Press it was not clear what direction the firing had come from on Tuesday.
Ukrainian officials on Monday said artillery was fired from the Russian side of the border. A Ukrainian soldier who declined to give his name suggested that Tuesday’s shelling could have come from rebels aiming to take out a Ukrainian rocket launcher.
Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security Council, blamed the shelling on “Russian mercenaries.”
Novoazovsk lies on the Azov Sea on the road that runs from Russia to the major Ukrainian port of Mariupol. That same road goes west to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia in March.
Ukraine said a small column of Russian tanks and armored vehicles crossed into Ukraine on Monday north of Novoazovsk, raising the possibility that pro-Russia separatists were aiming to take control of a strip of land that would link up Russia with Crimea.
“Russia is trying from its side to open a new front,” Lysenko told reporters.
“The new columns of Russian tanks and armor crossing into Ukraine indicates a Russian-directed counteroffensive may be underway,” U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt said on his Twitter account.
Russia has denied allegations from Kiev and Western countries that it is supporting or directing the rebels, as well as NATO charges that Russia has fired artillery into Ukraine to help the rebels.
Lysenko said there were enough forces and equipment in Mariupol to defend the city of more than 450,000. An AP reporter saw excavators digging deep trenches Tuesday on the eastern edge of the city.
Also Tuesday, Ukraine said its forces had captured 10 Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine. The Facebook page for Ukraine’s anti-rebel operation said the soldiers from a Russian paratrooper division were captured Monday around Amvrosiivka, a town near the Russian border.
The posting included videos of five men it said were among the captives, one of whom said the soldiers had been told they were being mobilized to take part in military exercises.
Russian news agencies quoted an unnamed official in the Russian Defense Ministry as saying the soldiers were patrolling the border and probably crossed the border inadvertently.
Russia reportedly has tens of thousands of troops positioned in areas near the Ukrainian border, leading to persistent concerns that Moscow could be preparing an invasion.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine began in mid-April, a month after Russia annexed Crimea. It has killed over 2,000 people and forced over 340,000 to flee, according to the U.N.
Jim Heintz in Kiev, Ukraine, and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.