MINSK, Belarus – The presidents of Russia and Ukraine are meeting for their first bilateral talks at a much-anticipated summit in Minsk, which many voiced hopes may help bring an end to fighting between Kyiv’s forces and pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko met late on Tuesday in the Belarussian capital, the first such meeting between the countries’ heads of state since Ukraine’s pro-Russian ex-president was ousted from power in February.
Fighting in east Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists are battling government forces, has claimed at least 2,000 civilian lives since it began in April, according to a United Nations estimate.
Towering columns of smoke rose Tuesday from outside a city in Ukraine’s far southeast after what residents said was a heavy artillery barrage.
It was the second straight day that attacks were reported in the vicinity of Novoazovsk, which is in eastern Ukraine’s separatist Donetsk region but previously had seen little fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels.
The shelling came on the same day that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Minsk, Belarus. The two leaders have not met face-to-face since a June ceremony in Normandy.
Local residents, some hastily packing up in order to flee, told The Associated Press it was not clear what direction the firing had come from.
Ukrainian officials on Monday said artillery was fired from the Russian side of the border. A Ukrainian soldier who declined to give his name suggested that Tuesday’s shelling could have come from rebels aiming to take out a Ukrainian rocket launcher.
Novoazovsk lies on the Azov Sea on the road that runs from Russia to the major Ukrainian port of Mariupol. That same road goes west to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia in March.
Ukraine said a small column of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles crossed into Ukraine on Monday north of Novoazovsk, raising the possibility that pro-Russia separatists were aiming to take control of a strip of land that would link up Russia with Crimea.
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“The new columns of Russian tanks and armour crossing into Ukraine indicates a Russian-directed counteroffensive may be underway,” U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt said on his Twitter account.
Russia has denied allegations from Kyiv and Western countries that it is supporting or directing the rebels as well as NATO charges that it has fired artillery into Ukraine to help the rebels.
Also Tuesday, Ukraine said its forces had captured 10 Russian soldiers in an eastern region where the Ukrainian troops are fighting separatists.
The Facebook page for Ukraine’s anti-rebel operation said the soldiers were from a Russian paratrooper division and were captured Monday around Amvrosiivka, a town near the Russian border.
The posting included videos of five men it said were among the captives, one of whom said the soldiers had been told they were being mobilized to take part in military exercises.
Russian news agencies quoted an unnamed official in the Russian Defence Ministry as saying the soldiers were patrolling the border and probably crossed the border inadvertently.
Russia reportedly has tens of thousands of troops positioned in areas near the Ukrainian border, leading to persistent concerns that Moscow could be preparing an invasion.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine began in mid-April, a month after Russia annexed Crimea. It has killed over 2,000 people and forced over 340,000 to flee, according to the U.N.
Jim Heintz in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.