Sides battle ahead of Ukraine talks
Fighting in eastern Ukraine has intensified as diplomats gather in Minsk for much-anticipated peace talks ahead of a meeting of Western leaders tomorrow.
Representatives of Ukraine, Russia, rebels and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe are meeting in the Belarus capital to lay the groundwork for a summit between the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France.
Both sides in the armed conflict claimed significant advances today, while the Ukrainian government accused rebels of shelling a town far behind the front line.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told parliament that Russian-backed rebels launched an artillery strike on the town of Kramatorsk, more than 30 miles away from the front line. Mr Poroshenko said the first round of rocket fire hit the headquarters of the Ukrainian command in eastern Ukraine and the second landed in a residential area.
The government-controlled Donetsk regional administration said seven people were killed, while 16 people were injured in the residential area and 10 more at the military headquarters.
Kramatorsk was the site of major fighting until July when pro-Russian separatists retreated.
Local website Donetskiye Novosti posted photos from the scene showing an artillery shell stuck in the ground next to a residential building and two bodies lying nearby.
Rebels denied any involvement in the attack.
The volunteer Azov battalion, loyal to Kiev, said on social media that it had captured several villages north east of the strategic port of Mariupol, pushing rebels closer to the border with Russia. However, rebel military spokesman Eduard Basurin said in a televised news conference that the rebels had not retreated.
The Azov said rebels shelled the village of Kominternove, east of Mariupol, causing unspecified civilian casualties.
The rebels also reported advances. Mr Basurin said they had surrounded the railway hub of Debaltseve, the focus of fierce fighting in the past weeks, cutting it off from a major road. A video posted online by a rebel-sympathising website showed separatists moving along the route while the bloodied bodies of Ukrainian soldiers lay on the side of the road.
At least seven Ukrainian troops were killed overnight in the east, military spokesman Anatoliy Matyukhin said. In the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, which comes under constant shelling, two civilians were killed and 12 injured.
The fierce fighting and a mounting death toll comes amid renewed efforts to work out a peaceful solution in a conflict that has displaced at least a million people and left the powerhouse of the Ukrainian economy in ruins.
The UN says the intense fighting has killed more than 5,300 people since April.
The Kremlin warned the West ahead of the talks against sending weapons to Ukraine or putting pressure on Russia.
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said any talk about imposing new sanctions on Russia or arming the Ukraine government would destabilise the situation.