Ukraine: 82 killed in eastern region clashes

KIEV - A total of 82 people including 70 pro-Russian separatists and 12 Ukrainian troops were killed in ongoing clashes between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists in the past 24 hours, officials said Sunday.

The separatists carried out 111 attacks in 37 towns in eastern Ukraine including Debaltseve, Troitskoe, Redkodub, Sanzharovka, Chernukhino, Zolotoe, Novogrigorovka and Faschivka, according to a press release issued by the The National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine.

24 Ukrainian soldiers, and 20 pro-Russian separatists were wounded in the clashes, the statement said.

The Ukrainian army destroyed 16 pro-Russian separatist vehicles including two tanks, it added. 

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov traded accusations on Saturday over the crisis in eastern Ukraine, at the internationally-renowned Munich Security Conference.

Poroshenko accused Russia of sending troops and weapons into eastern Ukraine, during his speech at the conference, showing participants a number of Russian passports and military IDs, which he said were seized from the soldiers who crossed into the Ukrainian territories.

"This is the best evidence for the aggression and for the presence of Russian troops," Poroshenko said, adding that so far 1,432 Ukrainian soldiers and 5,638 people lost their lives due to the armed conflict.

He accused Russia of waging a hidden war against Ukraine and annexing part of its territory while calling on the West to assist Ukraine with non-lethal weapons to help it defend its territories.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, for his part, defended Moscow's policy towards Ukraine and accused the Ukrainian government of escalating the violence in the region.

He claimed that the Ukrainian government has failed so far to launch a true national dialogue with the people in eastern Ukraine, and argued that the annexation of Crimea was not a violation of international law, but "an exercise of the right of self-determination."

In a controversial and internationally disputed referendum vote held on March 16, Crimea seceded from Kiev in favor of unification with Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill that officially incorporated Crimea into the Russian Federation on March 21.

The move was opposed by the U.S., European Union and the United Nations. 

Lavrov also blamed the U.S. and the EU for the tensions in Ukraine, saying "they directly support the coup d'etat,” referring to the Maidan protests in 2013, which ended the power of Moscow-backed former president Viktor Yanukovych after he refused to sign a deal to have closer ties with the EU.

The Russian foreign minister spoke cautiously about the recent diplomatic initiative of Germany and France to stop violence in eastern Ukraine.

“Russia will be committed to peace. We are against combats. We would like to see withdrawal of the weapons.  We would like to see direct negotiations between Kiev and Donetsk, within the framework of territorial integrity,” Lavrov said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande held talks with Putin Friday about halting the violence in eastern Ukraine, yet failed to broker a cease-fire deal following their long discussions. They agreed to continue discussions on the German-French proposal.

Merkel continued her efforts Sunday for a cease-fire deal between the conflicting parties.

In a telephone conference with the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and France, she discussed the possibility of a leaders summit in Minsk on Wednesday, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

He underlined that diplomats from four countries would negotiate in Berlin Monday a package of measures towards a cease-fire, with the goal of an agreement to make this leaders summit possible.

U.S. and European leaders accuse Russia of supporting the conflict with arms and ammunition, while Russia says the U.S. and EU have deliberately destabilized Ukraine to expand the west's military presence in Eastern Europe through NATO.

More than 5,300 people have been killed and 12,200 others injured in eastern Ukraine since mid-April last year in the ongoing conflict, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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