NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Heavy shelling hit a town in southeastern Ukraine on Wednesday, the third day of an assault that has forced government troops to spread their ranks thinner along the Russian border. Ukraine claimed the shelling was coming both from pro-Russian separatists and from Russia itself.
A meeting between the leaders of Ukraine and Russia on Tuesday seeking a solution to the conflict appears to have made little impact on the ground.
More than 20 shells were fired in one hour Wednesday at the government-held town of Novoazovsk. Plumes of black smoke rose above the town, which was also hit repeatedly by shelling Tuesday that damaged a hospital and wounded four people inside, mayor Oleg Sidorkin said.
The resort town lies on the Azov Sea on a road running from Russia to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol and west to Crimea. That has raised fears the separatists are seeking to create a land link between Russia and Crimea, which Russia annexed in March. If so, that could also give the rebels or Russia control over the entire Azov Sea and any oil or mineral riches it contains.
Government forces in Novoazovsk told an AP reporter the town remained under their control but warned they were expecting further attacks.
“Novoazovsk is being shelled both from Russia and from positions on Ukrainian territory,” Ukrainian National Security Council spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
This is the first time in the four-month-long conflict that fighting has reached as far south as the Black Sea and suggests that the rebels are emboldened. They also continue to show signs of regularly being supplied with heavy-duty weaponry, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and heavy artillery.
Sidorkin said the rebel forces were positioned near the southernmost border with Russia. It was not immediately clear how the rebels could travel to the area, which is distant from the main front line further north. Fighters could have easily come over the Russian border, however.
Artillery shells in Novoazovsk appear to be flying between positions held by rebels and by government forces.
“It hit a tree, there was a blast and the shrapnel came down here,” said Alexei Podlepentsov, an electrician at the hospital that was struck.
Ukrainian security officials say villages around Novoazovsk have also come under shelling.
Ukraine and Western governments have repeatedly accused Russia of playing a direct role in the conflict, supplying troops and weaponry to the rebels. Russia denies the claims, but their stance is increasingly dismissed abroad.
“Information, which in recent hours has gained another hard-facts confirmation, is that regular Russian units are operating in eastern Ukraine,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Wednesday. “This information, coming from NATO and confirmed by our intelligence, is in fact unequivocal.”
On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, met in the Belarusian capital of Minsk for their first ever one-on-one meeting, which lasted over two hours. But there was no indication of a swift resolution to the fighting that has dragged on since April and claimed at least 2,000 civilian lives.
Poroshenko called the talks “overall positive” and said Putin had accepted the principles of his peace plan, which includes an amnesty for those in the east not accused of serious crimes and calls for some decentralization of power to the region.
Putin, however, insisted that only Kiev could secure a cease-fire deal with the pro-Moscow separatists, saying the conflict was “Ukraine’s business” because Russia was not in the fight.
Russia “can only help to create an atmosphere of trust for this important and necessary process,” Putin said. “We in Russia cannot talk about any conditions for the cease-fire, about any agreements between Kiev, Donetsk, Luhansk,” the two rebel regions in eastern Ukraine.
But Associated Press journalists on the border have seen the rebels with a wide range of unmarked military equipment – including tanks, Buk missile launchers and armored personnel carriers – and have run into many Russians among the rebel fighters. Ukraine also captured 10 soldiers from a Russian paratrooper division Monday around Amvrosiivka, a town near the Russian border. In a video posted on Facebook by Ukraine, one of the soldiers said they did not know they were heading on a mission into Ukraine.
Those 10 have been taken to Kiev for questioning. Vasily Vovk of Ukraine’s security service said Russia has not contacted Ukraine about the soldiers, the Interfax news agency reported.
Lysenko also said five armored vehicles entered Ukraine from Russia on Tuesday but were turned back. Fighting persisted elsewhere, and Lysenko said 13 Ukrainian troops had been killed over the past day.
Ukraine wants the rebels to hand back the territory they have captured in eastern Ukraine, while Putin wants to retain some sort of leverage over the mostly Russian-speaking region so Ukraine does not join NATO or the European Union.
Putin has so far ignored requests from the rebels to be annexed by Russia.
In Moscow, Denis Pushilin, one of the leaders of the pro-Russia insurgency, told reporters he had no personal information about whether Russian soldiers had entered Ukraine near Novoazovsk. But he said the Ukrainian separatists have been joined by many volunteers, including from Russia and an increasing number from Serbia.
Jim Heintz in Kiev, Ukraine, and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.