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Pro-Russian fighters wait for representatives of the Ukrainian troops at a check point in the village of Karlivka near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on June 18, 2014, during a handover of the bodies of Ukrainian troops who died in a plane shot down near Luhansk. (EVGENIY MALOLETKA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Pro-Russian fighters wait for representatives of the Ukrainian troops at a check point in the village of Karlivka near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on June 18, 2014, during a handover of the bodies of Ukrainian troops who died in a plane shot down near Luhansk. (EVGENIY MALOLETKA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Fighting erupts in east Ukraine as rebels reject peace plan Add to ...

Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists were locked in fierce fighting in the east of Ukraine on Thursday and a rebel commander acknowledged big losses among separatists heavily outgunned by government forces.

Even as President Petro Poroshenko and his team prepared to unveil their blueprint for ending more than two months of rebellion, government forces, using artillery and heavy armour, said they were tightening the noose on separatists near Krasny Liman, north of the main regional hub of Donetsk.

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YAMPIL: TANKS REPORTED STORMING VILLAGE

Both Ukrainian government and rebel accounts of the fighting suggested a major battle involving armoured vehicles including tanks. One military source said 4,000 separatists were involved, while rebels sources in Donetsk said Ukrainian infantry supported by 20 tanks and many other armoured vehicles were storming the village of Yampil, about kilometres east of Krasny Liman.

A top rebel commander, Igor Strelkov, reported “heavy losses” in equipment and arms among the separatists, faced with a huge superiority in heavy armour on the government side at Yampil.

“We beat off the first attack and destroyed one tank. But it is difficult to take on 20 tanks. The battle is going on. Our people are holding but we can’t rule out that they [government forces] will break through,” Strelkov, who is also known as Girkin, said in a video statement. He urged Moscow to “take some measures.”

There was no word on casualties from the government side.

A government forces spokesman said on Thursday that it was when rebels refused a call to disarm – made in leaflets fired by big guns into rebel positions – that fighting broke out in the early hours of the morning. “We issued an ultimatum to the terrorists overnight to surrender their weapons. We guarantee their safety and investigation in line with Ukrainian law ... They refused,” said government forces spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov. “Now we are trying to narrow the encirclement. They are trying to break out.”

LONDON: NATO CHIEF WARNS OF RUSSIAN TROOP BUILDUP

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Thursday that at least a few thousand more Russian troops were now at Ukraine’s eastern border, a build-up he called a regrettable step backward.

“We now see a new Russian military build-up around the Ukrainian border. At least a few thousand more Russian troops are now deployed,” Rasmussen said in London.

“The international community would have to respond in a firm manner if Russia were to intervene further in Ukraine,” he said, adding: “That would imply deeper ... economic sanctions against Russia which would have a very damaging effect on the Russian economy.”

KIEV: POROSHENKO PRESSES PEACE PLAN

Poroshenko, installed as a president on June 7, is pushing a peace plan to end the separatist rebellion including an offer of a unilateral ceasefire by government forces and amnesty for the separatists as long as they put down their weapons.

Poroshenko was due later on Thursday to meet regional officials from the Donetsk and Luhansk areas of eastern Ukraine to explain his plan – though he rules out meeting separatists.

Separatist rebellions erupted in eastern Ukraine in early April after street protests in Kiev toppled the Moscow-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych and Russia in turn annexed the Crimean peninsula. Eastern rebels have called for union with Russia. The violence has cost the lives of 147 Ukrainian soldiers and wounded 267 up to now, the defense ministry said on Wednesday. But many scores of separatist militia, civilians and members of other military bodies such as the national guard have also been killed and the overall death toll is much higher.

EUROPE: UKRAINE TO SIGN DEAL WITH EU ON JUNE 27

Poroshenko said Thursday he would sign an association agreement with the European Union on June 27 and would also send his new foreign minister to Luxembourg next week to lay out a peace plan for the east to EU ministers.

Poroshenko made his comments after presenting Pavlo Klimkin, who was earlier endorsed as foreign minister by parliament, to the media. Klimkin commented: “Our priorities are obvious – they are a peace plan [for eastern Ukraine] and association with the EU.”

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