Pro-Russian rebels have opened up a new front in Ukraine’s south, with the separatists claiming they have captured the eastern town of Novoazovsk.
It comes after the US accused Russia of directing a fresh offensive in Ukraine, with Kyiv consistently accusing Moscow of deploying equipment and forces on Ukrainian territory.
But Alexander Zakharchenko, self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the self-declared ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’, a key rebel group, has said any Russians fighting alongside them do so as volunteers:
“We never hid the fact that there are many Russian citizens among us, without whose help it would be very difficult to fight now. There were about 3000-4000 of them in our ranks. Many have left, but more are still here.
There are also many soldiers that preferred to spend their leave among us, brothers who are fighting for freedom, rather than on a beach,”
It’s thought the rebels are now advancing on the key port city of Mariupol, an area of strategic importance for the control of the Sea of Azov.
Ukraine’s armed forces had been making significant gains against the separatists recently, tightening their grip around the strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk. Fighting in the area has already resulted in many civilian casualties, with renewed shelling on Thursday thought to have claimed at least 16 civilian lives.
But in Kyiv support for the military remains high, at a rally in the capital on Wednesday, people called on the Ukrainian government to provide more supplies and reinforcements to the armed forces in the country’s east.