Ukraine rules out offensive against pro-Russia separatists

Kiev (AFP) –

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Ukraine's army said Friday it would not launch an offensive against pro-Russian separatists controlling two regions in the east, as fears grow of a major escalation in the long-running conflict.

The statement came after fighting between the two sides intensified in recent weeks and Russia massed troops on the border.

"The liberation of the temporarily occupied territories by force will inevitably lead to the death of a large number of civilians and casualties among the military, which is unacceptable for Ukraine," Ruslan Khomchak, chief of the general staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said in a statement on Friday.

He accused Moscow of using "intimidation and blackmail by military force" to exacerbate the situation.

"Ukraine is supported by the entire civilised world. We are not alone in the face of the enemy," Khomchak added.

Also on Friday, the Turkish foreign ministry said the United States will send two warships through the Bosphorus to the Black Sea, which borders both Russia and Ukraine.

The ships will stay in the region until May 4, the foreign ministry said in a statement, while Turkish media reported that the warships will enter the Black Sea next week.

US Navy ships routinely operate in the region in support of Ukraine.

As tensions in eastern Ukraine escalated, Moscow -- which denies backing the separatists -- said Ukraine's actions could further fuel the conflict.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday that "the behaviour of the Ukrainian side poses a danger of full-scale hostilities".

Peskov added that "Russia has not threatened and does not threaten any country in the world", but is free to "take measures to ensure its security".

The White House this week said the number of Russian troops at the border with Ukraine was now greater "than at any time since 2014", when war in eastern Ukraine first broke out after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula.

- Zelensky on the frontline -

Amid the intensifying fighting, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday visited the eastern frontline and spent the night there.

"Our country's fate is determined here," Zelensky said on Facebook on Friday, while images released by his office showed him in the trenches clad in a helmet and bulletproof vest, shaking hands with soldiers.

"These are the points of escalation", the president said, adding that he had conversations with soldiers "to the sound of gunshots".

Zelensky, who has urged NATO to speed up his country's membership into the alliance to support Ukraine, said Thursday he had visited positions where Ukrainian troops were killed and wounded in recent weeks.

He said 26 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed since the start of the year, compared to 50 in all of 2020, when fighting in the conflict subsided as a new ceasefire agreement took hold last July.

Separatists said that more than 20 of their fighters had been killed in 2021, while the conflict in Ukraine's mainly Russian-speaking east has claimed more than 13,000 lives since it erupted.