Putin wants talks after 'hundreds killed' in Ukraine
Putin demands talks on new state amid claims of carnage
Vladimir Putin demanded negotiations over "statehood" for eastern Ukraine yesterday, as Moscow deepened its involvement in the bloody conflict between separatists and troops loyal to Kiev.
The Russian president made the comments as allegations emerged that hundreds of troops may have been killed in the defeat of a Ukrainian force trapped south-east of Donetsk, in a further setback for Kiev's armed forces. A coastguard vessel was also reportedly bombed by Russian jets in the Black Sea.
"We need to quickly begin substantive and meaningful negotiations and not only on technical questions, but on questions of the political organisation of society and statehood for south-eastern Ukraine," Mr Putin told Russian television.
But he warned that people who expected Moscow-backed separatist militias, which have made striking gains in recent days, to wait for promised negotiations with Kiev were "prisoners of an illusion".
Mr Putin's spokesman later clarified that he was calling for negotiations between separatist leaders and the Ukrainian government on political independence, rather than demanding sovereignty for the rebel-held regions.
The comments will be seen by Western diplomats as further evidence that the Kremlin wants to create a de facto autonomous region outside Kiev's control in eastern Ukraine.
The Kremlin began last week openly referring to Novorossiya (New Russia), a term used to describe former Ottoman territories conquered by Catherine the Great, which now include most of modern south-eastern Ukraine and stretch as far west as Odessa. Separatist fighters have been designated the "army of Novorossiya" by Russian state-controlled media.
Separatists have made significant gains against the Ukrainian army in recent weeks, after Kiev appeared on the verge of crushing the rebellion.
Ukraine yesterday released 10 Russian paratroopers captured on Ukrainian territory in exchange for 63 Ukrainian soldiers in Russian custody.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian soldiers appeared to have taken advantage of a humanitarian corridor publicly requested by Mr Putin to escape from the besieged town of Ilovaisk, 20 miles from Donetsk.
Several dozen troops, including the sectoral commander, Lt Gen Ruslan Khomchak, returned to Ukrainian-held territory yesterday.
But some Ukrainian soldiers who made it to friendly territory on the weekend said the corridor had been all but fictional, complaining that they had been fired upon as they tried to escape.
"We came from Ilovaisk bearing white flags," said one soldier. "They shot us from all sides. We were not engaged in military actions. We were just on the move."
Ukrainian volunteer battalions claimed "hundreds" of their men have been killed and dozens taken prisoner after pro-Russian forces reneged on the agreement. Russia has repeatedly denied deploying its military to boost the separatists' firepower. Mr Putin also signalled he had reached an agreement about the outlines of a peace plan with Mr Poroshenko, but he did not give any details.
Belarus has said that diplomats from Russia, Ukraine and the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe will meet in Minsk today to form a contact group that will look at ways of brokering peace.
While the scale of Ukraine's losses in the battle of Ilovaisk remained unclear, a video posted online by pro-Russian fighters showed a separatist commander saying he has taken at least 174 prisoners.
The video showed prisoners being forced to jump up and down and being verbally abused by their captors, who accuse them of complicity in shelling civilian areas.
Pictures posted on the Facebook page of the Crimea Hundred, one of the Ukrainian units that escaped, showed the remains of destroyed vehicles and the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers purportedly killed during the breakout. Semyon , the commander of the largest pro-Ukrainian volunteer battalion trapped in the town, claimed that his men had surrendered not to rebel fighters but to Russian soldiers.
He named the Russian units involved as from the 137th Regiment of the 32nd Division of the Russian army and the Ninth Tank Brigade. The claims could not be immediately verified. (© Daily Telegraph, London)