Heavy fighting erupted between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday.
It was the most significant escalation of the conflict in about three months and in defiance of a ceasefire deal, according to Reuters.
Ukraine’s defense minister said an attempt by Russian-backed rebels to take the eastern town of Maryinka had been thwarted. The rebels had tried to advance using tanks and up to 1,000 fighters west of the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk, the Ukrainian military said.
The separatists, who denied their forces had launched an assault, said 15 people had been killed when government troops fired artillery into rebel-held territory near the city.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian president said two had been killed and 30 injured, while a regional police chief said three civilians had been killed.
In Moscow, the Kremlin immediately took the side of the separatists, accusing the Ukrainian armed forces of carrying out provocative actions.
“In Moscow, we are following very closely, and are deeply concerned by, the provocative actions by the Ukrainian armed forces that are, as far as we can see, provoking the situation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on a call.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said those responsible for the fresh fighting were trying to halt progress in internationally-brokered peace talks.
Washington blamed Moscow for the violence. “Russia bears direct responsibility for preventing these attacks and implementing a ceasefire. Any attempts to seize additional Ukrainian territory will be met with increased costs,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.
Ukraine said the separatists had launched an early morning assault on government-held Maryinka, a town 15 kilometers (9 miles) west of Donetsk which had a pre-conflict population of about 9,900.
The fighting, in which both sides used heavy weapons, went far beyond the regular low-level skirmishing which has regularly punctuated a ceasefire brokered in February by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France, the news agency said.
“For the moment, storming operations have been halted,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak told reporters.
Many heavy weapons have been pulled back under the ceasefire agreement brokered in Minsk, Belarus, to put the warring sides out of range of each other’s big guns.
But the Ukrainian military acknowledged it had used heavy weapons in the latest fighting. “For the purpose of appropriate response, we were forced to use heavy artillery,” military spokesman Oleksiy Mazepa was quoted as saying.
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