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Intense Fighting Flares in Eastern Ukraine

“Pro-Russian separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine mounted four simultaneous attacks against government forces Wednesday night and early Thursday morning, officials in Kiev said. The violence comes just days before¬†presidential elections¬†that separatists have vowed to block.

The attacks resulted in some of the highest number of casualties since the conflict began, officials said. The overall death toll in the latest fighting wasn’t immediately available but Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said eight servicemen were killed in one of the battles.

“Today a major operation was prepared on all fronts and it was repulsed,” Andriy Parubiy, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told a briefing in Kiev, according to the Interfax news agency. He said the separatists are expected to increase their attacks in the days ahead of Sunday’s presidential elections.

In a separate briefing, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Kiev is calling for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to address what he said were efforts by Russia to “escalate the conflict” and sabotage the elections. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman dismissed the allegations as “groundless.”

Previous such sessions have had little effect because Russia holds a veto in the Security Council.

Russia, however, has taken a softer tone as the election approaches, saying this weekthat it was pulling its troops back from the border. The White House and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have been skeptical of the claim, but the military alliance’s civilian head said Thursday there were signs Russian forces were preparing to withdraw.

In remarks to the press in Montenegro that were released by NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said: “It is too early to say what this means, but I hope this is the start of a full and genuine withdrawal.”

Separatists confirmed fighting on several fronts. In the breakaway Luhansk People’s Republic, one of the two regions where separatists have declared independence, the self-styled “people’s governor” declared martial law starting Thursday morning as a result of heavy fighting around the city of Lisichansk. It wasn’t clear what the declaration meant in practice, however.

Separatists near Luhansk blew up a bridge over the Siverskiy Donets river near Novodruzhesk in several hours of fighting, Interfax reported Thursday, citing local witnesses.

In the eastern part of Donetsk, the other of the two regions where separatists have declared independence from Ukraine, there were reports of another battle near the border with the Luhansk region.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said eight servicemen were killed near Volnovakha, on the road from the regional capital, Donetsk, to Mariupol, where there hadn’t been heavy separatist fighting before….”

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