Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) – Seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed and heavy shelling erupted Saturday across the country s south-east on the eve of separatist elections backed by Russia, but condemned by Kiev and Western governments.
Losses in the last 24 hours “as a result of fighting were six servicemen killed and 10 wounded,” Volodymyr Polyovy, spokesman for the National Security and Defence Council, said.
Hours later, military officials said another soldier had died and six were wounded in shelling by Grad multiple rockets.
Polyovy said the deaths showed separatist forces “continue to violate the ceasefire agreement” signed September 5 in an attempt to defuse a crisis that has led to the worst tensions between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
There was intensive shelling at the ruins of Donetsk airport, which remains partly in Ukrainian hands, despite lying in territory mostly controled by the separatists, officials said.
Mid-morning Saturday, explosions could be heard about every five seconds, accompanied by the sound of machine-guns, AFP correspondents in Donetsk said.
However, President Petro Poroshenko announced on his Facebook page that 25 soldiers held prisoner by the separatists had been freed — a requirement of the September ceasefire that has met with relative success.
– Rebel election –
The bombardments formed a frightening backdrop to elections on Sunday in the self-declared, pro-Russian statelets known as the Donetsk People s Republic and the Lugansk People s Republic.
Pro-Russian gunmen guard Alexander Zakharchenko (C), Prime Minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic and presidential candidate on October 31, 2014 in Donetsk
There were no signs of polling stations in Donetsk near the airport and rebel soldiers deployed there said they didn t know of any stations in the area. However, there was little doubt about the winners of the two polls, with separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko on course to become head of the Donetsk republic and Igor Plotnitsky in Lugansk.
Separatist authorities, who have close links with their Russian counterparts, say three million ballots have been printed and that voting by Internet has already started. There s even an exit poll planned for late Sunday.
“These elections are important because they will give legitimacy to our power and give us more distance from Kiev,” said Roman Lyagin, election commission chief of the Donetsk People s Republic.
Vera, 45, who was selling eggs in a small Donetsk market, said she would vote “against the Fascists” — an insult against Ukraine s pro-Western government that has become widespread in the separatist regions and in Russia s powerful state media machine.
However, retired teacher Lyubov Georgiyevna, 75, said “I won t vote. It won t change anything.” She said above all she wished she could sleep at night without the sound of explosions.
– Question of legitimacy –
Russia says it will recognise the legitimacy of the separatist elections, infuriating Ukraine and Western countries which describe the votes as another blow to the already teetering ceasefire.
Retired teacher Lyubov Georgyvna, 75, reacts as she hears artillery explosions in Donetsk on November 1, 2014
Latest UN figures show 4,035 people have been killed in about seven months of war — more than 300 of them in the last 10 days.
Russia has been locked in a bitter tug of war with the West over Ukraine s future.
Pro-Western revolutionaries toppled the previous Moscow-backed government here in February and Russian troops then invaded the southern province of Crimea in March. The pro-Russian insurgency in the east erupted shortly after.
Now the separatist vote seems set to further deepen the diplomatic split and make less likely any imminent lifting of Western sanctions against Russia.
The White House on Friday said: “We deplore the intent of separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine to hold illegitimate so-called local elections on Sunday.” The European Union and the NATO military alliance have also condemned the polls.
In a four-way call earlier on Friday, the leaders of Ukraine, Germany and France urged Russian President Vladimir Putin not to recognise the polls.
Ukraine s national security service, the SBU, issued a warning late Friday of the risk of “provocations” during the separatist votes.
“The process of voting itself and of taking part in these elections is dangerous,” the SBU official, Markiyan Lubkivsky, said. “Serious provocations are being prepared that can then be blamed on the Ukrainian authorities.”
There was one bit of good news out of Ukraine this week with Thursday s signing by Kiev, Moscow and the European Union of a deal guaranteeing Russian gas sales to the former Soviet state over the winter.