Pro-Russian rebel forces have entered a key town in south-eastern Ukraine after three days of heavy shelling, the town’s mayor said, capturing new territory far from most of their battles with government troops.
The town of Novoazovsk lies in a strategically significant location – on the Azov Sea and on the road linking Russia to the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula.
It was the first time in the four-month conflict that fighting has reached as far south as the coast and suggests that the rebels, who Ukraine says are being supported by Russia, are emboldened and reinforced.
The new south-eastern front has raised fears the separatists are seeking to create a land link between Russia and Crimea. If so, that could also give the rebels or Russia control over the entire Azov Sea and any oil or mineral riches it contains.
Mayor Oleg Sidorkin said rebels had penetrated into the town. There were no immediate details on the size of the rebel force.
On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, met in the Belarusian capital of Minsk for over two hours. But there was no indication of a swift resolution to the fighting that has claimed at least 2,000 civilian lives.
Mr Poroshenko called the talks “overall positive” and said Mr Putin had accepted the principles of his peace plan, which includes an amnesty for those in the east not accused of serious crimes and calls for some decentralisation of power to the region.
Mr Putin, however, insisted only Kiev could secure a ceasefire deal with the pro-Moscow separatists, saying the conflict was “Ukraine’s business” because Russia was not in the fight.