Ukrainian soldiers ride atop an APC near the village of Sakhanka, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. Separatist rebels shelled a town of Novoazovsk in southeastern Ukraine on Wednesday, raising fears they are launching a counter-offensive on government-held parts of the region, one day after the leaders of Ukraine and Russia met to discuss the escalating crisis. Sergei Grits/Associated Press
Ukraine's president called an emergency meeting of the nation's security council and cancelled a trip to Turkey Thursday, declaring that "Russian troops were actually brought into Ukraine," as concerns grew about the opening of a new front in the conflict.
President Petro Poroshenko summoned the council as the strategic southeastern Ukraine town of Novoazovsk appeared firmly under the control of Russia-backed separatists.
Novoazovsk, which lies along the road connecting Russia to the Russia-annexed Crimean peninsula, had come under shelling for three days, with the rebels entering on Wednesday. The southeastern portion of Ukraine along the Azov Sea previously had escaped the fighting engulfing areas to the north.
The leader of the insurgency, Alexander Zakharchenko, said in an interview on Russian state television that 3,000 to 4,000 Russians have fought on the separatist side since the armed conflict began in April.
A NATO military officer in Brussels told The Associated Press that "we assess there are over 1,000 Russian troops operating inside Ukraine" now. He said NATO estimates that another 20,000 Russian troops are close by, right over the Russian border. He spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity because the material was confidential.
2 tank columns enter Ukraine from Russia
Ukraine's envoy to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said that regular Russian forces had seized Novoazovsk, Reuters reported.
"What we registered is a direct invasion of the Russian military into the eastern regions of Ukraine," said Ihor Prokopchuk, adding that Ukraine viewed it as an "act of aggression."
His Russian counterpart denied the claim. Russian Ambassador Andrey Kelin said that "no Russian forces are crossing in any point the border of Ukraine."
Two columns of tanks from Russia entered a strategic town, said a Ukraine security spokesman.
Ukrainian forces were fired at using Grad missile systems from Russian territory at about 11 a.m . local time, said Ukrainian security council spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko.
About an hour and a half later, two columns, including tanks and other fighting vehicles, began an attack. They later entered Ukraine from Veselo-Voznesenka and Maximovo of the Rostov region in Russia.
Ukrainian border guards retreated because they didn't have heavy equipment.
A member of Russian President Vladimir Putin's advisory council on human rights, Ella Polyakova, said on Thursday she believed Russia was carrying out an invasion of Ukraine, Reuters reported.
"When masses of people, under commanders' orders, on tanks, APCs with the use of heavy weapons, [are] on the territory of another country, cross the border, I consider this an invasion," Polyakova told Reuters.
Russian markets dived as fears grew that the country was escalating its role in the conflict, a move that could provoke the U.S. and European Union to impose further sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals. Russia's MICEX index dropped nearly two per cent on Thursday, and major Russian banks VTB and Sberbank dropped more than four per cent.
Russia-Crimea land link feared
The new southeastern front raised fears that the separatists are seeking to create a land link between Russia and Crimea.
If successful, it could give them or Russia control over the entire Sea of Azov and the gas and mineral riches that energy experts believe it contains. Ukraine already has lost roughly half its coastline, several major ports and significant Black Sea mineral rights in March when Russia annexed Crimea.
In Mariupol, a city of 450,000 about 30 kilometres to the west, a brigade of Ukrainian forces arrived at the airport on Wednesday afternoon, while deep trenches were dug a day earlier on the city's edge.
In Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city, 11 people were killed by shelling during the night, the city administration said in a statement.
Associated Press journalists on the border have seen the rebels with a wide range of unmarked military equipment — including tanks, Buk missile launchers and armoured personnel carriers — and have run into many Russians among the rebel fighters. Ukraine also captured 10 soldiers from a Russian paratrooper division Monday around Amvrosiivka, a town about 20 kilometres from the Russian border.
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