Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, has claimed that serving Russian military officers are taking part in operations in east Ukraine, after an An-26 transport plane was reportedly shot down near the border.

A statement on the president’s website said the aircraft was flying at an altitude high enough to evade any of the weapons that separatists were known to have, and was “probably” attacked from inside Russian territory.

It was not immediately clear how many military personnel were on board the plane, but there were reports that some had managed to parachute to safety and make contact with military HQ in Kiev.

After a lull when all sides appeared to be seeking a way out of the conflict, tension has risen again in recent days as Ukrainian troops have moved to retake towns held by the rebels, and separatist fighters have regrouped in the regional centres of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Russian politicians have demanded targeted strikes on Ukrainian territory after a shell apparently fired by pro-Kiev forces landed in a residential area on the Russian side of the border, killing one person. Russia’s foreign ministry warned that the shelling could have “irreversible consequences”, while the Ukrainians have been sounding the alarm over what they claim is more overt Russian involvement than ever before.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said rumours of a Russian ground invasion in the next 24 hours were “nonsense”.

On Sunday night, Ukrainian forces launched a fresh offensive on the outskirts of Luhansk in an attempt to reach government troops besieged by rebels for more than a month at the city’s airport.

Both sides fired heavy artillery in a fierce fight to the south-east of the city, pausing briefly during the World Cup final, only to resume fire again until the early hours of the morning. The Ukrainian army claimed it had broken the blockade of the airport.

Air strikes and mortar fire also hit the outskirts of the city. Pro-Russia gunmen manning the final rebel checkpoint to the south-west of Luhansk said they had come under heavy assault during the night.

A spokesperson for the Luhansk People’s Republic – one of two separatist enclaves set up after referendums in May – said several civilians were injured and three killed.

The Ukrainian forces also suffered losses. On a bridge near the airport on Monday afternoon, armed rebels ransacked a burnt-out government truck and armoured personnel carrier for salvageable weapons.

The vehicles – travelling in a convoy of 10 – had been caught an ambush as they approached the airport during the night. Unexploded ammunition littered the tarmac; on the grass beyond the road barrier lay the bodies of two Ukrainian soldiers.

At their camp in the woods nearby, rebel fighters said they had also lost two men in the skirmish. “We will kill them here and they we will go to Kiev, we will chase them all the way to America,” Alexy, one of the gunmen, told the Guardian.

As fighting continues around the last separatist strongholds, Ukrainian authorities are asserting their presence in the towns they have retaken. Dozens of troops and police patrolled the streets of Siversk, a town of 10,000 that was taken by government troops on Thursday after a two-day fight.

Inside the city hall, Captain Valery Levchenko, 39, said government intelligence agencies had mapped the main separatist positions in the town, which were then targeted with artillery and air strikes before troops launched a ground attack… see more

source: Guardian Uk