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Shelling moves closer to Ukrainian port


MARIUPOL, Ukraine (AP) -- Shelling resounded on the outskirts of a Ukrainian port city Friday as Russian-backed rebels pressed their offensive in the strategically key southeast just hours ahead of talks that are widely hoped to bring a cease-fire.

Associated Press reporters heard heavy shelling on Friday morning north and east of Mariupol. The strategic city of about 500,000 lies along the Sea of Azov, between Russia to the east and the Russia-annexed Crimean Peninsula to the west.

The sound of incoming and outgoing shelling from different directions appeared to indicate that rebels have partially surrounded the area and are probing its defenses. The onslaught could be intended to raise the pressure on the Ukrainian government ahead of peace talks in Minsk, Belarus, which are expected to lead to a cease-fire.

Seizure of Mariupol would give the rebels a strong foothold and raise the threat of the rebels carving a land corridor between Russia and Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in March. If that happens, Ukraine would lose another chunk of sea coast and access to rich hydrocarbon resources the Sea of Azov is believed to hold.

The rebel offensive follows two weeks of rebel gains that turned the tide of the war against Ukrainian forces, who until recently had appeared close to crushing the five-month rebellion in the east.

Ukraine and the West say the rebel counterattack was spearheaded by regular Russian army units, a charge the Kremlin has denied.

Representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are to meet later Friday in Minsk for talks on ending the conflict. Both Ukraine's president and rebel leaders say they are prepared for a cease-fire if the talks succeed.

On Thursday, President Petro Poroshenko said while attending a NATO summit in Wales that he was ready to order a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine if a deal is signed. The rebels said they were ready to declare a truce if agreement can be reached on a political settlement for the mostly Russian-speaking region.

As head of state, Poroshenko said he is "ready to do my best to stop the war," and he voiced "careful optimism" about the meeting. Earlier this week, he discussed the outlines of a peace deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who also expressed optimism about the chances of reaching agreement.

For all the upbeat assessments, however, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was skeptical of Russian motives. "What counts is what is actually happening on the ground, so it remains to be seen what it is, and I have to say that previously we have seen similar statements and initiatives and they have been a smoke screen for continued Russian destabilization of the situation in Ukraine," he said.

Since mid-April, Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting government troops in a conflict the U.N. estimates has killed nearly 2,600 people. On Thursday, a NATO military officer told The Associated Press the ranks of Russian soldiers directly involved in the conflict have grown.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Learn more about our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

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greatbirdusa September 05 2014 at 8:29 AM

Ukraine MUST be made
a member of NATO so as to be included the "collective defense".
Russian attacks Ukraine -
They attack the NATO alliance...!

Flag Reply +7 rate up
3 replies
Ed September 05 2014 at 5:51 AM

I wouldn't want a country that incorporated neo-Nazi paramilitary units like the Azov Battalion into it's military sitting on America's border any more than the Russians want a country like that sitting on their border.

Flag Reply +5 rate up
3 replies
Kat4Hat September 05 2014 at 9:44 AM

NATO is a dangerous organization now; promoting Nazy in the middle of Europe is building a foundation the "European ISIS". NATO proved to be the most murderous group in the past 20 years killing millions of people around the world.

Flag Reply +4 rate up
Brown Bee September 05 2014 at 5:33 AM

Sorry I don't blame Putin, I blame the west for their lies.

Flag Reply +4 rate up
3 replies
lawoff414 September 05 2014 at 5:16 AM

It is obvious that Putin is "terrified" of the actions other world "leaders" and the toothless UN are threatening to take. He could care less and apparently he HAS a strategy and plan in place.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
drepke September 05 2014 at 9:10 AM

From a U.S State Department that is clueless unless the put a hasttag tweet out and the President who can't decide if ISIS is an Islamic militant group that needs to be managed or a Islamic terrorist organization that needs to be destroyed, this whol administration is feekless. President Clinton sign an agreement with ukraine leaders that if the got rid of their nukes we would defend their territory and President Obama resigned that agreement a few years ago. Now we see how much the words and promises of these two Presidents are worth.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
Kat4Hat September 05 2014 at 9:40 AM

You clearly see on the picture that AZOV is a Nazy organization. Is this is what NATO tries to sell to the world?????

Flag Reply +3 rate up
1 reply
sandinbox Kat4Hat September 05 2014 at 11:19 PM

Kat4Hat...and you're a lying troll...everyone has dismissed your lies so why do you continue to sing the same song over and over again. Does that mean that Russia is losing? You're continued lies makes me think so or you wouldn't be starting over again with the same trolls and the same lies.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
wbearl September 05 2014 at 6:43 AM

The EU considers sanctions, Richard Chamberlain "Peace in our time".

UN condemns Russia, The league of Nations condemns Germany.

Americans warn FDR not to get involved in European problems, Obama doesn't want to get involved in other peoples problems.

Boy we haven't progressed much since the 1930's have we? Like they say, those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
4 replies
tmccull52 September 05 2014 at 5:49 AM

By the time that Vladmir Putin finishes deploying Russian troops and pro-Russian rebels where he wants them, the sanctions by the U.S. and other NATO countries aren't going to mean doodly squat. We have another Hitler in the making here, and once again, nobody appears capable of stopping him.

Obama's a wuss. Putin knows it. The entire civilized world knows it. Jimmy Carter must be dancing in the street knowing that he is no longer the most spineless president in United States history.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
3 replies
vladswim September 05 2014 at 6:01 AM

May the brave and courageous rebels destroy the fascist anti-human pro-Nazi hordes of degenerates.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
3 replies
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