Kiev: Ukraine on Wednesday reported its first military fatality from pro-Russian rebel fire in a month as a fragile new truce in the separatist east faced one of its biggest tests to date.
The military in Kiev said the rebels shot at positions south of Avdiivka — a northern suburb of the separatists’ self-declared capital Donetsk.
“The bandits did not stop at their regular provocations and fired at our positions using barrel-mounted and automatic grenade launchers,” the Ukrainian military said in a statement.
“One soldier was killed and two were injured.”
The warring sides signed their latest in a series of ceasefire agreements on September 1.
The truce helped calm 18 months of clashes that have killed more than 8,000 people and sent Moscow’s relations with the West crashing to their lowest point since the Cold War.
The two sides have also slowly begun withdrawing smaller weapons from a 30-kilometre-wide (19-mile-wide) buffer zone splitting rebel-held regions — about the size and population of Wales — from the rest of Ukraine.
The army reported two fatalities on September 14 under circumstances they did not explain. The rebels said they also lost a fighter last weekend on the outskirts of Donetsk.
Other army troops have died in mine incidents but not in open confrontation with the insurgents still massed along the 500-kilometre (310-mile) so-called line of contact.
– US sends sensitive radar –
The latest casualties were reported on Ukraine’s Defenders of the Fatherland Day — a sombre occasion that Kiev introduced after Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea and the subsequent revolt in the eastern provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a keynote address devoted to the launch of a new military museum in Kiev that his former Soviet country still depended heavily on Western military and political support.
“We do not need foreign soldiers,” he said in nationally televised remarks.
“But we are grateful to our foreign partners for providing us with non-lethal defencive equipment, which we have finally started to receive.”
US President Barack Obama recently allowed a shipment of high-tech radar to Ukraine that could help its forces to respond more quickly and precisely to potential ground assaults.
But he has brushed off calls from the US Congress to equip Ukraine with more sophisticated attack weapons that could recapture its economically vital rust belt.
Obama fears further infuriating Russian President Vladimir Putin — a strongarm leader who denies either orchestrating or backing the eastern revolt — and further prolonging the crisis.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande are leading negotiations they had initially hoped could resolve Europe’s bloodiest conflict since the Balkan wars of the 1990s by the end of the year.
Both leaders conceded after meeting Putin and Poroshenko in Paris on October 2 that their deadline would probably have to be pushed back into next year.
– Poroshenko ‘co-pilots fighter jet’ –
The presidency said Poroshenko later marked the patriotic holiday by co-piloting a Su-27 fighter aircraft in the southern Zaporizhya region — a populist gesture trademarked by Putin throughout his commanding 16-year rule.
Poroshenko posted a photo on Facebook of him waving in the cockpit with an oxygen mask strapped to his face. A separate clip showed a light-blue military jet taxiing down a runway but never actually provided footage of the Ukrainian president in the air.
But the streets of Kiev were shaken by firecrackers and loud slogans chanted by camouflaged nationalists on the march.
Around 5,000 members of far right groups who stand accused of staging an August 31 grenade attack that killed four people filled central streets of the ancient city before gathering for a rock concert.
The booming festival was held outside a temporary detention centre where several of their members are held in connection with the deadly bombing.