Explosions and gunshots were heard closer than ever to the rebels’ strongholds in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk this evening, as fighting edged within a couple of miles of the city center.
Earlier in the day six Ukrainian soldiers were killed and one seriously wounded in an ambush by pro-Russia militia near Kramatorsk, the Defense Ministry said in a statement. Thirty rebels reportedly surrounded a convoy of soldiers riding in APCs and fired a grenade launcher, which provoked a gun battle.
The Ukrainian army has been holding its position in a military base in Kramatorsk — which sits about 20 minutes from Sloviansk — for several weeks as the rebels have consolidated their grip on the area surrounding the base.
At least six members of the Ukrainian military were killed in clashes with a militia group near Kramatorsk on May 13, according to the Ministry of Defense.
The latest round of violence follows heavy shelling of a rebel barricade Monday afternoon and evening on the edge of Andreevka village. Today the shot-up blockade was emptied of rebels, at least for now.
The death toll from a Kiev-backed anti-terror campaign aimed at ousting the rebels from the country's eastern regions has mounted after the government upped the ante by moving the operation into an "active" phase.
Following ten days of intermittent fighting, the death toll on both sides is thought to be at least a dozen. Civilians have also been caught in the crossfire, and as fighting edges ever closer to residential areas, the likelihood of unintentional casualties is only growing. On Sunday heavy shelling of a rebel barricade left severe shrapnel damage on several houses in a hamlet sandwiched in the middle of the battling forces.
The leaders of the fledgling Donetsk People's Republic have vowed to drive the Ukrainian army out of their land.
Leaflets, warning the soldiers and security service forces that they had 48 hours to "swear allegiance or the Donetsk People's Republic or leave its territory" were distributed over the weekend.
Following a landslide victory in a controversial referendum on the status of the region held on Sunday, Denis Pushilin, the fledgling republic's leader, said that forming an army was a top priority for the new authorities because of a "civil war started by the Kiev junta on our territory.” He also stated that the position of commander-in-chief of the armed forces had been offered to the leader of the local militia units Igor Girkin — who goes by the name "Strelkov" and is accused by Kiev of being a Russian agent.
According to the rebel leaders in Donetsk, 89 percent of voters elected for independence in the vote, which had a turn out of 75 percent. A referendum held in the neighboring rebel-controlled Luhansk region produced even more favorable results for rebels, with 96 percent voting in their favor. Today negotiations on merging the two republics into one entity were opened, their respective leaders reported.
A referendum on joining Russia is also on the table, as rumors that a second round of voting could be held as early as next weekend are spreading. The People's Republic of Donetsk's leaders have also called on Russia to send in peacekeeping troops to the country's troubled eastern regions.
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who last week called on the rebels to postpone the vote, has been slow to respond to the request. Today the Kremlin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said no comment has yet been prepared.
Yesterday Putin called for the "civilized implementation" of the referendum results, "without further bloodshed."
In a visit to Kiev, German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier called for all sides to participate in roundtable discussions.
But with an escalating level of violence, neither side looks ready for negotiation. Ukraine's government has denounced the vote as a "criminal farce soaked in blood," while the Kiev-appointed governor of Donetsk Sergey Taruta called the referendum an "opinion poll." No independent monitors were present at the vote, where some polling stations had "security" provided by balaclava-clad gunmen.
Adding to Kiev's woes, Russia's state-controlled gas company Gazprom has demanded Ukrainian pay up for a June bill of $1.66 billion. Since the crisis began under the new government, the company has doubled the price of gas — a move that Kiev has rejected. Ukraine now owes more than $3.5 billion in total.
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem