Ukraine forces, separatists fight first serious battles in months

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Fresh Clashes Break Out in Eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists on Wednesday fought their first serious battles in months and Ukraine's defense minister said an attempt by rebels to take the eastern town of Maryinka had been thwarted.

The Ukrainian military said the Russian-backed rebels had tried to advance using tanks and up to 1,000 fighters west of the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk, in the most significant escalation of the conflict in about three months and in defiance of a ceasefire deal.

Estimates of casualties varied.

The separatists, who denied their forces had launched an assault, said 15 people had been killed when government troops fired artillery into rebel-held territory near the city.

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Ukraine forces, separatists fight first serious battles in months
Pro-Russian separatists take part in a military competition between tank units near the town of Torez, in the Donetsk region, on September 24, 2015. Ukraine's pro-Moscow insurgents showed off their military prowess on Thursday by launching exercises involving heavy tanks that Kiev claims they had covertly received from Russia. The self-proclaimed 'tank biathlon' mirrored manoeuvres that Russia has been staging with its former Soviet allies in recent years. AFP PHOTO / ALEKSEY FILIPPOV (Photo credit should read ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-Russian separatist military cadets attend a military competition between tank units near the town of Torez, in the Donetsk region, on September 24, 2015. Ukraine's pro-Moscow insurgents showed off their military prowess on Thursday by launching exercises involving heavy tanks that Kiev claims they had covertly received from Russia. The self-proclaimed 'tank biathlon' mirrored manoeuvres that Russia has been staging with its former Soviet allies in recent years. AFP PHOTO / ALEKSEY FILIPPOV (Photo credit should read ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A Ukrainian soldier of 95th airborne brigade guards a position at the frontline near Avdiivka, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, July 19, 2015. Ukraine’s separatist rebels say they have begun pulling back military vehicles armed with small-caliber weapons from most of the front line in the war with Ukrainian forces. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
Members of the Right Sector group march down the street during a rally in the center Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, July 21, 2015. The radical Right Sector group was one of the most militant factions in the massive protests in Ukraine's capital that prompted pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country in February 2014. Since war broke out in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russia separatists several months later, the Right Sector has fought on the government side. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Members of the Right Sector group rest prior their rally in the center Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, July 21, 2015. The radical Right Sector group was one of the most militant factions in the massive protests in Ukraine's capital that prompted pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country in February 2014. Since war broke out in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russia separatists several months later, the Right Sector has fought on the government side. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Activists and supporters of far-right Ukrainian party Right Sector participate in a rally on Independence Square in Kiev on July 21, 2015 after the party's extraordinary congress. Several thousand protesters gathered to support the party's decision to start collecting signatures for a referendum calling for for the resignation of President Petro Poroshenko and his government. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Activists and supporters of far-right Ukrainian party Right Sector participate in a rally on Independence Square in Kiev on July 21, 2015 after the party's extraordinary congress. Several thousand protesters gathered to support the party's decision to start collecting signatures for a referendum calling for for the resignation of President Petro Poroshenko and his government. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Praviy Sektor (Right Sector) fighters take a nap in their room at their headquarter in a small village near Pokrovskoe on June 3, 2015. Right Sector is a paramilitary group that fights with the governmental army against separatists for the control of Eastern Ukraine. AFP PHOTO / FABIO BUCCIARELLI (Photo credit should read FABIO BUCCIARELLI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Praviy Sektor (Right Sector) fighter, aged 70, poses for a pictures while he makes exercizes at their headquarter in a village near Pokrovskoe on June 3, 2015. Right Sector is a paramilitary group that fights with the governmental army against separatists for the control of the East of Ukraine. AFP PHOTO / FABIO BUCCIARELLI (Photo credit should read FABIO BUCCIARELLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Praviy Sektor (Right Sector) fighters get ready at their headquarter in a small village near Pokrovskoe, eastern Ukraine on June 3, 2015 before going to the frontline in Eastern Ukraine. Right Sector is a paramilitary group that fights with the governmental army against separatists for the control of the East of Ukraine. AFP PHOTO / FABIO BUCCIARELLI (Photo credit should read FABIO BUCCIARELLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Praviy Sektor (Right Sector) fighters train at their headquarter in a small village near Pokrovskoe, eastern Ukraine on June 3, 2015. Right Sector is a paramilitary group that fights with the governmental army against separatists for the control of the East of Ukraine. AFP PHOTO / FABIO BUCCIARELLI (Photo credit should read FABIO BUCCIARELLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Praviy Sektor (Right Sector) fighters take a rest at their headquarter in a small village near Pokrovskoe, eastern Ukraine on June 3, 2015. Right Sector is a paramilitary group that fights with the governmental army against separatists for the control of the East of Ukraine. AFP PHOTO / FABIO BUCCIARELLI (Photo credit should read FABIO BUCCIARELLI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Praviy Sektor (Right Sector) fighter trains at their headquarter in a small village near Pokrovskoe, eastern Ukraine on June 3, 2015. Right Sector is a paramilitary group that fights with the governmental army against separatists for the control of the East of Ukraine. AFP PHOTO / FABIO BUCCIARELLI (Photo credit should read FABIO BUCCIARELLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Praviy Sektor (Right Sector) fighters train at their headquarter in a small village near Pokrovskoe, eastern Ukraine on June 3, 2015. Right Sector is a paramilitary group that fights with the governmental army against separatists for the control of the East of Ukraine. AFP PHOTO / FABIO BUCCIARELLI (Photo credit should read FABIO BUCCIARELLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Praviy Sektor (Right Sector) fighters train at their headquarter in a small village near Pokrovskoe, eastern Ukraine on June 3, 2015. Right Sector is a paramilitary group that fights with the governmental army against separatists for the control of the East of Ukraine. AFP PHOTO / FABIO BUCCIARELLI (Photo credit should read FABIO BUCCIARELLI/AFP/Getty Images)
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A Ukrainian presidential spokesman, Yuri Biryukov, on his Facebook page put total casualties at 7 p.m. (1600 gmt) at two dead and 30 injured, while regional police chief Vyacheslav Abroskin said three civilians had been killed.

In Moscow, the Kremlin immediately took the side of the separatists, accusing the Ukrainian armed forces of carrying out provocative actions.

"In Moscow, we are following very closely, and are deeply concerned by, the provocative actions by the Ukrainian armed forces that are, as far as we can see, provoking the situation," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on a call.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said those responsible for the fresh fighting were trying to halt progress in internationally-brokered peace talks.

Washington blamed Moscow for the violence. "Russia bears direct responsibility for preventing these attacks and implementing a ceasefire. Any attempts to seize additional Ukrainian territory will be met with increased costs," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

Ukraine said the separatists had launched an early morning assault on government-held Maryinka, a town 15 km (9 miles) west of Donetsk which had a pre-conflict population of about 9,900.

HEAVY WEAPONS

The fighting, in which both sides used heavy weapons, went far beyond the regular low-level skirmishing which has regularly punctuated a ceasefire brokered in February by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France.

The fighting started around 3 a.m. (midnight GMT) and ended almost 12 hours later.

"For the moment, storming operations have been halted," Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak told reporters.

A military spokesman was later quoted by Interfax news agency as saying that separatists had launched new attacks on Maryinka and that parts of the town were on fire. Other spokesmen said government troops were in control.

Many heavy weapons have been pulled back under the ceasefire agreement brokered in Minsk, Belarus, to put the warring sides out of range of each other's big guns.

But the Ukrainian military acknowledged it had used heavy weapons in the latest fighting. "For the purpose of appropriate response, we were forced to use heavy artillery," military spokesman Oleksiy Mazepa said on television channel 112.

Senior rebel commander Eduard Basurin said separatist forces had only used weapons in defense, denying any attempt to advance.

"We are not carrying out offensive actions," separatist press service DAN quoted him as saying.

The separatists said more than 900 miners had been trapped underground after the clashes caused a power failure at two large mines, Skochinsky and Zasyadko, in Donetsk. They were later evacuated, the separatist emergency services said.

Ninety people, wounded in shelling on Wednesday, had to be evacuated along with other patients from a hospital in Donetsk's Petrovsky district, after the building was also cut off from power, head doctor Igor Rutchenko was quoted as saying by DAN.

(Additional reporting by Gleb Garanich in Ukraine, Denis Dyomkin, Gabriela Baczynska and Lidia Kelly in Moscow and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Andrew Roche)

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