Ukraine army 'inside rebel city'
Army troops have penetrated deep inside a rebel-controlled city in eastern Ukraine in what could prove a breakthrough development in the four-month-long conflict, the Ukrainian government said today.
However, the military acknowledged that another one of its fighter planes was shot down by the separatists.
Ukraine's national security council said government forces captured a district police station in Luhansk yesterday after bitter clashes in the Velika Vergunka area.
Weeks of fighting have taken their toll on Luhansk, which city authorities say has reached the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe.
The siege mounted by government forces has ground delivery of basic provisions to a halt and cut off power and running water.
Ukrainian military spokesman Oleksiy Dmitrashkovsky said today that the separatists shot down a Ukrainian fighter plane over the Luhansk region after it launched an attack on rebels.
The pilot ejected and was taken to a secure place, he said.
Another military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, later said that the status of the pilot was still being clarified.
Meanwhile, a column of armoured vehicles was spotted south-east of Luhansk outside a town very close to the Russian border and was heading west, deeper into rebel-held territory.
It was unclear whether the column had come from Russia. Among the armoured vehicles was a Strela-10, a short-range surface-to-air missile system capable of hitting targets up to 3,500 metres.
The area is just across the border from where a large Russian aid convoy is poised to cross with supplies intended for Luhansk and other afflicted zones.
Part of the aid convoy headed to the frontier crossing today but the 16 white trucks then stopped.
The convoy of nearly 270 vehicles has been marooned for days in a town near the border amid objections from Ukraine, which initially complained that the mission was not authorised by the International Committee for the Red Cross.
The Red Cross, which would have responsibility for distributing the aid, said yesterday the main hold-up was a lack of security guarantees from all sides in the conflict.
A large X-ray machine was brought to the Russian crossing point in the afternoon and Paul Picard, the head of a border-monitoring mission from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said it would be used to inspect the cargo.
As the status of the Russian aid convoy remained uncertain, the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France were expected to meet in Berlin tonight over the crisis.
German foreign minister Frank-Walter-Steinmeier said in a statement before the talks that the search for a political solution must not be neglected even as efforts are made to provide humanitarian aid to civilians in the rebel-held cities of Luhansk and Donetsk.
He said the focus would be on a timetable for a durable ceasefire and effective controls along Ukraine's border with Russia.
Donetsk, the main rebel-held city, also is suffering through fighting, including frequent shelling. Ten civilians have been killed and eight wounded in the past 24 hours, city authorities reported today.
The leader of the self-proclaimed separatist government in the Donetsk region, Alexander Zakharchenko, has boasted that his forces have been bolstered by 1,200 fighters who underwent training in Russia and were brought in at a "crucial moment".
In a video of his speech that was posted online over the weekend, he said the fighters have 150 armoured vehicles, including 30 tanks, and have gathered near a "corridor" along the Russian border.
Russian president Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov today denied that Russia had supplied any armoured vehicles to the separatists.