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Updated: Thu, 28 Aug 2014 14:20:44 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Ukraine crisis: Russian tanks enter Ukraine, fire missiles at border post



A military truck tows a damaged vehicle through the steppe near the village of Krasnodarovka in Rostov region August 28, 2014. A Reuters reporter saw on Thursday a column of armoured vehicles and dust-covered troops, one of them with an injured face, driving through the Russian steppe just across the border from a part of Ukraine which Kiev says is occupied by Russian troops. None of the men or vehicles had standard military identification marks, but the reporter saw a Mi-8 helicopter with a red star insignia -- consistent with Russian military markings -- land next to a nearby military first aid tent. The column was driving east away from the Ukrainian border across open countryside near the village of Krasnodarovka in Russia's Rostov region. REUTERS/Maria Tsvetkova (© RUSSIA - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS CONFLICT)

A military truck tows a damaged vehicle through the steppe near the village of Krasnodarovka in Rostov region August 28, 2014. A Reuters reporter saw on Thursday a column of armoured vehicles and dust-covered troops, one of them with an injured face, driving through the Russian steppe just across the border from a part of Ukraine which Kiev says is occupied by Russian troops. None of the men or vehicles had standard military identification marks, but the reporter saw a Mi-8 helicopter with a red star insignia -- consistent with Russian military markings -- land next to a nearby military first aid tent. The column was driving east away from the Ukrainian border across open countryside near the village of Krasnodarovka in Russia's Rostov region. REUTERS/Maria Tsvetkova (RUSSIA - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS CONFLICT) - RTR4449A Maria Tsvetkova/Reuters

Two columns of tanks and military vehicles rolled into southeastern Ukraine from Russia on Thursday after Grad missiles were fired at a border post and Ukraine's overmatched border guards fled, a top Ukrainian official said.

Echoing the comments by Ukraine's Col. Andriy Lysenko, a top NATO official said at least 1,000 Russian troops have poured into Ukraine with sophisticated equipment, leaving no doubt that the Russian military had invaded southeastern Ukraine.

"The hand from behind is becoming more and more overt now," Brig.-Gen. Nico Tak said at NATO's military headquarters, adding that that Russia's ultimate aim was to stave off defeat for the separatists and turn eastern Ukraine into a "frozen conflict" that would destabilize the country indefinitely.

"An invasion is an invasion is an invasion," tweeted the Lithuanian ambassador to the UN, Raimonda Murmokaite.

The UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on Thursday afternoon.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that if reports that fighting has spread southward are confirmed it would mark a "dangerous escalation" of the crisis, Reuters reported his spokesperson as saying on Thursday.

"Russian forces have entered Ukraine," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said, cancelling a foreign trip and calling an emergency meeting of the country's security council. "Today the president's place is in Kyiv."

Ukrainian president warns against panic

Poroshenko urged his citizens to resist giving into panic.

"Destabilization of the situation and panic, this is as much of a weapon of the enemy as tanks," Poroshenko told the security council.

As Poroshenko spoke, the strategic southeastern town of Novoazovsk appeared firmly under the control of separatists and their Russian backers, a new, third front in the war in eastern Ukraine between the separatists and Poroshenko's government in Kyiv.

Lysenko said the missiles from Russia were fired at Ukrainian positions in the southeast about 11 a.m. local time and an hour and a half later, two columns, including tanks and other fighting vehicles, began an attack. They entered Ukraine from Veselo-Voznesenka and Maximovo in the Rostov region of Russia.

Also Thursday, 15 civilians were killed in shelling in Donetsk, reported Reuters, citing a statement by city administration on its website. The statement described the general situation there as "very tense."

Russian stock markets dived as Switzerland joined the European Union in imposing restrictions on Russian state banks and fears grew that the U.S. and EU could impose further sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals in response to the military escalation. Russia's MICEX index dropped nearly two per cent on Thursday, and major Russian state banks VTB and Sberbank dropped more than four per cent.

20,000 Russian troops stationed near border

"Over the past two weeks we have noted a significant escalation in both the level and sophistication of Russia's military interference in Ukraine," Tak said in Casteau, Belgium. "Russia is reinforcing and resupplying separatist forces in a blatant attempt to change the momentum of the fighting, which is currently favouring the Ukrainian military."

He said the 1,000 Russian troops was a conservative estimate and said another 20,000 Russian troops were right over the Russian border.

NATO also produced satellite images to provide what it called additional evidence that Russian combat soldiers, equipped with sophisticated heavy weaponry, are operating inside Ukraine's sovereign territory.

"This is highly sophisticated weaponry that requires well-trained crews, well-trained command and control elements, and it is extremely unlikely that this sort of equipment is used by volunteers," Tak said.

Russia has described the Russian citizens fighting with the separatists as volunteers.

Tak said the satellite images were only "the tip of the iceberg" in terms of the overall scope of Russian troop and weapons movements.

NATO also has detected large quantities of advanced weapons, including air defence systems, artillery, tanks and armoured personnel carriers being transferred to separatist forces in eastern Ukraine," he said.

The leader of the insurgency, Alexander Zakharchenko, said in an interview on Russian state television Thursday that 3,000 to 4,000 Russians have fought on the separatist side since the armed conflict began in April.

More than 100 Russian soldiers were killed in a battle this month helping pro-Russian separatists fight Ukrainian troops, two members of the Russian presidential human rights council said on Thursday, reported Reuters. The two cited accounts of eye-witnesses and relatives of the dead.

Ella Polyakova and Sergei Krivenko said around 300 people were also injured in the violence on Aug. 13 near the town of Snizhnye in Donetsk Province, when a column of trucks full of ammunition they were driving was hit by a sustained volley of Grad missiles.

"A column of Russian soldiers was attacked by Grad rockets and more 100 people died," said Krivenko speaking by telephone to Reuters. Polyakova said she had also been given the same figure.

Ukrainian troops strengthen positions

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 it on Wednesday. This area had previously escaped the fighting that has engulfed areas to the north, and the only way rebels could have reached the southeast was by coming through Russia.

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 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 of Novoazovsk, a brigade of Ukrainian forces arrived at the airport on Wednesday, while deep trenches were dug a day earlier on the city's edge.

National Guard spokesman Ruslan Muzychuk told the AP in Mariupol that the government has evidence that large amounts of weapons have been brought into Novoazovsk from across the Russian border.

He added that National Guard reinforcements were taking up positions in Mariupol.

"The positions are being strengthened," the spokesman said. "The road from Novoazovsk to Mariupol is under the control of Ukrainian troops."

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