NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Pro-Russian rebel forces entered a key town in southeastern Ukraine on Wednesday after three days of heavy shelling, the town’s mayor said, capturing new territory far from most of their battles with government troops.
The town of Novoazovsk lies in a strategically significant location – on the Azov Sea and on the road linking Russia to the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula. It was the first time in the four-month-long conflict that fighting has reached as far south as the seacoast and suggests that the rebels, who Ukraine says are being supported by Russia, are emboldened and reinforced.
The new southeastern front has raised fears the separatists are seeking to create a land link between Russia and Crimea. If so, that could also give the rebels or Russia control over the entire Azov Sea and any oil or mineral riches it contains.
In a brief phone call Wednesday, mayor Oleg Sidorkin told The Associated Press that rebels had penetrated into the town. There were no immediate details on the size of the rebel force.
Earlier in the morning, 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, Sidorkin said.
Ukrainian security officials said villages around Novoazovsk have also come under shelling. The assault on the town has forced government troops to spread their ranks thinner along the Russian border.
“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.
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.
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.