* Rebel commander says separatists outgunned by govt troops
* Government forces say rebels refused to lay down arms
* Poroshenko says peace plan for east will be unveiled soon
(Adds Poroshenko speaking to Putin paragraphs 12 and 13)
By Aleksandar Vasovic
SIVERSK, Ukraine, June 19 Ukrainian troops and
pro-Russian separatists were locked in fierce fighting in the
east of Ukraine on Thursday and a rebel commander acknowledged
big losses among separatists heavily outgunned by government
Even as President Petro Poroshenko and his team prepared to
unveil their blueprint for ending more than two months of
rebellion, government forces, using artillery and heavy armour,
said they were tightening the noose on separatists near Krasny
Liman, north of the main regional hub of Donetsk.
Government forces said the fighting erupted in the early
hours after rebels refused to lay down their arms as part of
Poroshenko's peace plan.
Both Ukrainian government and rebel accounts of the fighting
suggested a major battle involving armoured vehicles including
One military source said 4,000 separatists were involved,
while rebel sources in Donetsk said Ukrainian infantry supported
by 20 tanks and many other armoured vehicles were storming the
village of Yampil, about 12 km (7 miles) east of Krasny Liman.
A top rebel commander, Igor Strelkov, reported "heavy
losses" in equipment and arms among the separatists, faced with
a huge superiority in heavy armour on the government side at
"We beat off the first attack and destroyed one tank. But it
is difficult to take on 20 tanks. The battle is going on. Our
people are holding but we can't rule out that they (government
forces) will break through," Strelkov, who is also known as
Girkin, said in a videoed statement. He urged Moscow to "take
There was no word on casualties from the government side.
From the nearby town of Siversk, artillery blasts, small
arms fire and machinegun-fire could be heard from about 3 km
away. From high ground, smoke could be seen billowing from rebel
positions under attack.
Poroshenko, installed as a president on June 7, is pushing a
peace plan to end the rebellion which he said would be unveiled
soon and presented to European Union ministers early next week.
It includes an offer of a unilateral ceasefire by government
forces and amnesty for the separatists - but only if they lay
down their weapons.
Poroshenko's website later said he outlined the plan to
Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone on Thursday,
highlighting the need for hostages to be freed and "an effective
regime of control" established on the joint border.
It said Poroshenko emphasised he hoped for Putin's support
for the plan and for any ceasefire that would be declared.
REBELS "REFUSED TO DISARM"
A government forces spokesman said on Thursday it was when
rebels refused a call to disarm - made in leaflets fired by big
guns into rebel positions - that fighting broke out in the early
hours of the morning.
"We issued an ultimatum to the terrorists overnight to
surrender their weapons. We guarantee their safety and
investigation in line with Ukrainian law ... They refused," said
government forces spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov.
"Now we are trying to narrow the encirclement. They are
trying to break out," Seleznyov said.
Separatist rebellions erupted in eastern Ukraine in early
April after street protests in Kiev toppled the Moscow-backed
leader Viktor Yanukovich and Russia in turn annexed the Crimean
peninsula. Eastern rebels have called for union with Russia.
The violence has cost the lives of 147 Ukrainian soldiers
and wounded 267 up to now, the defence ministry said on
Wednesday. Many scores of separatist militia, civilians and
members of other military bodies such as the national guard have
also been killed and the overall death toll is much higher.
Kiev has accused Russia of fomenting the unrest and of
allowing volunteer fighters from Russia to cross into Ukraine to
support the rebels.
This is denied by Moscow, which has been urging Poroshenko
to end "punitive action" against the rebels.
The United States and its Western allies largely share
Ukraine's view. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden assured Poroshenko
late on Wednesday there would be "further costs on Russia"
unless it used its influence to stop the separatist violence,
the White House said.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen meanwhile
sounded a new alarm about Russia's possible intentions, saying
that at least a few thousand more Russian troops were now on
Ukraine's long eastern border.
"I consider this a very regrettable step backwards. It seems
Russia keeps the option open to intervene further in Ukraine,"
he said in London.
"The international community would have to respond in a firm
manner if Russia were to intervene further in Ukraine."
BOOST FOR POROSHENKO
In Kiev, Poroshenko received a boost when parliament
resoundingly endorsed his nominations for three key posts
including that of foreign minister.
Speaking to journalists later, he said he himself would sign
an association agreement with the European Union on June 27
which will decisively shift Ukraine away from Russia's influence
and rule it out from joining a Moscow-led customs union.
It was Yanukovich's sudden refusal last November to sign
that pact and upgrade relations with Moscow that precipated his
own ousting and Russia's annexing of Crimea, and sparked the
worst crisis in Russia-West relations since the Cold War.
But Poroshenko knows he has to impress the West with his
intentions of reaching a peaceful settlement to the eastern
crisis by using minimum force. He said his new foreign minister,
Pavlo Klimkin, would unveil his peace plan for the east on June
23 at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg.
Ukrainian forces, which lost 49 servicemen on June 14 when
separatists brought down a cargo plane in Luhansk region, have
been gradually tightening their encirclement of rebel positions
to the south and east of Krasny Liman including the rebel
stronghold of Slaviansk.
Olesya, a woman in Yampil, said Ukrainian forces had entered
the village in armoured vehicles bearing the Ukrainian flag.
"There was fighting all night. Mines were flying over our
heads. Planes flew over and we could hear heavy weapons. It's
awful what is going on here," she said.
Sergei, a 45-year-old who was leaving the village of Zakitne
by scooter, said people had been sheltering in cellars for days
and his wife had already left because there was no food,
electricity or gas.
He was now leaving because "there are homes on fire and dead
people on the streets".
"There is an ongoing active phase of the ATO (anti-terrorist
operation) in the region of Krasny Liman," said government
forces spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov
Asked about the report that 4,000 separatists could be
involved, Seleznyov, the government forces spokesman, replied:
"Then, there'll be 4,000 coffins".
(Additional reporting by Lina Kushch in Donetsk and Pavel
Polityuk in Kiev; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by