Ukrainian army forces ‘are deep inside rebel-held eastern city’

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Army troops have penetrated deep inside a rebel-controlled city in eastern Ukraine in 
what could potentially prove a breakthrough development in the four-month-long conflict, the Ukrainian government said yesterday.

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 on Saturday 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 yesterday 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 yesterday 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.

The Red Cross, which would have responsibility for distributing the aid, said on Saturday the main hold-up was a lack of security guarantees from all sides in the conflict.