Ukrainian separatists with Russian tanks

Kiev accused Russia on Friday of sending more tanks and troops into eastern Ukraine and said they were heading towards the rebel-held town of Novoazovsk on the southern coast, expanding their presence on what it fears could be the next battlefront.

Russia did not immediately respond to the accusation which, if confirmed, would go further to kill off a European-brokered truce that was met by relentless rebel advances after it came into force on Sunday. Moscow has always denied accusations in the past that its forces are fighting in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, there were signs that the rebels may be prepared to halt their advance, having achieved their main military objective this week by seizing the strategic town of Debaltseve in defiance of the ceasefire.

Reuters journalists in the battle zone, including Debaltseve itself now firmly in rebel hands, said it was quieter than it had been for days. Kiev and the rebels both announced a new agreement, signed by Ukrainian generals and separatist leaders, to begin withdrawing heavy weapons from the front line, one of the main requirements of the truce deal.

Kiev’s biggest worry is that rebels will continue their advance to threaten Mariupol, a highly strategic port of 500,000 people that is the biggest city still under government control in the two rebellious eastern provinces. Novoazovsk, where Kiev said Russia was reinforcing, lies 40 km (25 miles) to the east along the coast near the Russian border.

“In recent days, despite the Minsk (ceasefire) agreement, military equipment and ammunition have been sighted crossing from Russia into Ukraine,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said. He said more than 20 Russian tanks, 10 missile systems and busloads of troops had crossed the frontier.

The United States, which is considering tightening sanctions against Russia and arming Kiev, also says it has sighted Russian reinforcements. The State Department said Russian support for the rebels was undermining international diplomacy and would bring “costs” on Moscow.

Western nations have held out hope they can revive a peace deal brokered by France and Germany in the Belarussian capital Minsk on Feb. 12, even though the rebels ignored it to seize Debaltseve, a town on a strategic railway hub, inflicting one of the worst defeats of the 10-month-old war on Kiev.

“We are more convinced than ever that they must be applied – all the agreements, nothing but the agreements,” French President Francois Hollande said in Paris alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday.

More than 5,600 people have been killed in fighting since mid-April last year, soon after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine following Yanukovich’s overthrow.

Source : Reuters