Ukraine conflict is 'red hot' as UK offers more support
The Ukraine conflict is a "red-hot" war that shows no sign of ending soon, the British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon warned as he announced the UK will step up training to Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed separatists.
Mr Fallon said the 18-month-long crisis had not settled into a frozen war and Ukraine's eastern border was still at risk from Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces.
He also opened the door to sending further military trainers to the country if the Kiev government asked for them and said the UK would offer support for as long as it was needed.
Mr Fallon spoke on a visit to see military training teams outside the Ukrainian capital Kiev, as a surge in fighting in the east of the country saw the heaviest artillery attacks on government positions for six months, with both sides accusing one another of readying for a return to all-out offensive warfare.
The most intense violence has centred on Starohnativka, a town 40km north of the Ukrainian-controlled strategic port of Mariupol.
The Ukrainian military said it repulsed an attack by 400 rebels backed by tanks who assaulted its positions there on Monday morning. Shelling was reported to be continuing in the area last night.
Eduard Basurin, a military spokesman for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, denied breaking the ceasefire and said at least one civilian had died in an "unprecedented" Ukrainian artillery attack near Starohnativka.
"The command of (Ukraine's) anti-terrorist operation continues active preparations for a large-scale offensive against the Donetsk People's Republic," Mr Basurin said at a briefing.
Ukraine fears that Mariupol will be the separatist's next strategic target if they renew offensive operations.
One Ukraine soldier was killed and 13 injured in the past 24 hours, said government spokesman Alexander Motusnyak yesterday.
A small British force of 75 soldiers across the country will step up training Ukrainian troops in urban combat, dealing with mines and creating stronger fortifications, Mr Fallon said.
The troops have trained 1,000 members of the Ukrainian army and national guard so far and aim to train 1,000 more by the end of the year.
"We shouldn't lose sight of just how serious this situation is. Seven thousand people have already died in Ukraine, right on the doorstep of Europe, as Ukraine fights for its freedom. This is not a frozen conflict, it's still red-hot," he said.
Mr Fallon said he did not expect the conflict to end "anytime soon".
The Minsk ceasefire deal signed in mid-February has failed to stem the violence and both sides regularly accuse the other of violating its terms.
"Since the Minsk peace agreements have been signed, around 200 Ukrainian soldiers have lost their lives and around 2,000 have been injured. We are not going to turn our back on Ukraine. We are standing shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine while its borders are still threatened," Mr Fallon said.
Britain's training mission was not provocative, he added.
"This is not lethal aid, this is not provocative. This is all designed to help the Ukrainian forces better defend themselves and to save lives."