Violent clashes continued to up the ante in the eastern Ukrainian conflict today as scores of armed pro-Russia rebels attacked a border control checkpoint in the country's Luhansk region during the early hours this morning.
Video footage released on YouTube shows the checkpoint coming under mortar fire before setting ablaze. Throughout the day, waves of heavy gunfire exchange between pro-Russia rebels and the government ensued, as fighters squatted behind buildings firing reams of bullets at one another. Rocket propelled grenade launchers were fired by rebel fighters positioned in derelict nearby apartment buildings.
The clashes continued into the evening. Dead and wounded have been incurred on both sides, likely numbering up to a dozen fatalities, although numbers cannot be verified.
The Luhansk region is largely under the control of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic forces, however the region’s border with Russia, for now, remains under tenuous Ukrainian control. A handful of isolated military checkpoints in the grey zone between rebel lands and the border reinforce the Ukrainian side of crossing points.
But the loyalty of security forces has been called into question across the region, as police and other armed forces have defected en masse to the rebels.
Earlier this month it was reported by Kiev that the border guard services captured the Luhansk self-styled leader, Valery Bolotov, as he crossed from Russia into Ukraine. But several hundred militias, who launched a gun assault, allegedly sprang the rebel leader free.
In stark contrast, the rebels say that Bolotov’s freedom was secured simply by paying a bribe to the border officials.
The importance of the thousands of miles of shared border between Ukraine and its giant eastern neighbor has risen to the fore, following evidence of Russian fighters operating in the country’s east.
Last week VICE News witnessed the bodies of 30 Russian fighters, killed in clashes in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, being repatriated across the Uspenka border into Russia. It is unclear whether the dead were mercenaries or volunteers.
The “majority” of the 40,000 Russian troops that were stationed on Ukraine’s eastern borders for several months have been now been withdrawn, said Rear Admiral John Kirby, a spokesman for the Pentagon, in a statement released on Friday.
A porous border, allowing the free-flow of arms and men into Ukraine’s troubled east — and arms-length responsibility — now looks to be a preferable option for those in Moscow supporting the rebels, rather than costly Crimean-style direct military intervention.
Pro-Russia rebels operating across the region have appeared on the streets with increasingly sophisticated weaponry, including rocket propelled grenade launchers, surface to land missiles, and a growing number of APCs — although some of these may have been sourced internally.
Today, in a separate incident in Luhansk, explosions rocked the rebel-occupied administrative building in the city center. Unverified YouTube footage appears to show a fighter-jet flying overhead before the incident.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has called Kiev’s ongoing military operation in eastern Ukraine, including the use of the air force, a “gross violation” of international law.
But, the Ukrainian military has denied responsibility for the assault. Alexei Dmytrashevskoho, the military spokesman for the ongoing anti-terrorist operation, said the explosion was not a result of military strikesand that, “the most likely cause of the explosion was careless and inept handling of small arms and explosives.”
The explosion, which was followed by a panic-inducing burst of gunfire, killed at least five, including civilians according to eyewitnesses.
The latest round of violence in Luhansk come just one week after a fierce battle between Ukrainian military and pro-Russia rebels for control of Donetsk airport, which left at least 40 dead.
Coming just days after the so-called "Chocolate King" confectionary billionaire Petro Poroshenko took a first-round victory in the country’s long-awaited presidential election, the fighting over the transport hub in the region's administrative capital marked a crucial escalation in the Ukrainian crisis — with both sides seeming increasingly willing to use deadly force.
According to the rebels, dozens of dead bodies remain inside the aerodrome, which is currently under Ukrainian control. An agreement for a proper search of the territory and the retrieval of the dead has not yet been reached, leaders of the rebel forces told VICE News.
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