KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s president on Thursday warned of a possible large-scale offensive by separatist forces in the east, one day after a major battle erupted on the western edge of the main separatist rebel stronghold.
Heavy fighting on the outskirts of Donetsk on Wednesday was the most severe in months. A cease-fire called in February has been violated almost daily, but hostilities had tapered off after the agreement.
The fighting was heaviest in in the village of Marinka. Ukrainian officials said five servicemen were killed on Wednesday, four of them in or around Marinka. Late Wednesday, the minister of defense for the Donetsk rebels, Eduard Basurin, said 14 rebels and five civilians had been killed by Ukrainian fire during the day, but didn’t specify locations.
Ukrainian military spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko claimed Thursday that about 80 rebels were killed in the fighting, along with two civilians.
On Thursday, rebels shelled the town of Avdiyivka just north of Donetsk, according to a Facebook post from Vyacheslav Abroskin, the police chief for the government-controlled sector of the Donetsk region. He said an unspecified number of civilians were wounded.
The intensity of the combat the day before raised fears of full-scale fighting resuming in the war that has already killed more than 6,400 people since April 2014.
In an address to the Ukrainian parliament, President Petro Poroshenko spoke of a “colossal threat of the resumption of large-scale hostilities by Russian and terrorist forces” and said there are now 9,000 Russian troops in the rebel-controlled area.
The monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe said its observers saw at least a dozen tanks moving from the rebel-controlled city toward the western outskirts in the run-up to the battle.
Mission spokesman Michael Bociurkiw on Thursday urged all sides in the conflict to “exercise maximum restraint.” He also told reporters that observers in recent days had found that some heavy weapons which had been pulled back by both sides were missing from the areas where they were being stored.
“This suggests non-compliance” with the cease-fire accord, which called for both sides to pull back large weapons in order to create a buffer zone, Bociurkiw said.
An Associated Press reporter on Thursday saw two Grad missile launchers driving toward the government-controlled town of Artemivsk. Under the cease-fire accord, such weapons were to be withdrawn from that area.
Russia has strongly denied supplying the rebels either with weapons or with recruits, despite mounting evidence suggesting otherwise.
The U.N. Security Council scheduled an open meeting Friday morning on the latest developments at the request of Lithuania, a strong supporter of the Ukrainian government.
Nataliya Vasilyeva and Jim Heintz in Moscow, Yevgeny Maloletka near Artemivsk, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.