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By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
KYIV, UKRAINE (BosNewsLife)– Officials say heavy fighting between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has forced hundreds of Ukrainian army soldiers to cross into Russia. Kiev says it will pressure Moscow to get them back.
The latest cross-border tensions come while civilians in the rebel-stronghold cities of Donetsk and Luhansk are bracing for a long siege.
With the power grid reportedly down and fuel running dry, residents in Luhansk may be forgiven for saying their eastern Ukrainian city is dying.
Store shelves are emptying fast and those who have not managed to flee are forced to drink untreated tap water. Doctors are sending patients home due to a lack of medicine.
The situation isn’t much better in the neighboring Donetsk region.
Ukraine’s army is trying to completely surround the pro-Russian rebel strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk, and is trying to cut off supply lines from Russia.
Moscow has denied it supports the rebels, but a pro-rebel television station showed pictures of a consignment of medicine from Russia arriving in Luhansk.
Kiev acknowledged that a border area of some 100 kilometers remains in rebel hands.
Ukraine’s army says it is hitting strategic sites and recapturing territory, but has denied shelling residential areas.
The ongoing clashes have made it difficult for international investigators searching for human remains at the nearby crash site where Malaysian Airlines passenger plane was allegedly shot down last month by pro-Russian rebels, killing nearly 300 people.
“We are in an area where battles rage,” acknowledged the head of the Dutch-led team, Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg. “We were advised by [colleagues] of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to wait near the area where we wanted to go. Eventually we could do our work for several ours and found personal belongings” of victims, he added.
Ukrainian officials say the battles forced 311 soldiers to cross into Russian territory.
Russian officials claimed earlier as many as 438 troops entered Russia, with media reporting they had sought asylum.
The impact of the war is felt far beyond Russia’s borders.
Up to 27,000 Russian tourists are stranded abroad with no flights home after the fifth Russian travel company collapsed amid economic difficulties linked in part to biting Western sanctions.
The West is punishing Russia for allegedly supporting pro-Russian rebels and its annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.