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Ukraine accuses Russia of sending mercenaries to rebel territories

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Ukraine accuses Russia of sending mercenaries to rebel territories

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KYIV, Ukraine – Ukraine’s military intelligence service said Friday that Russia is sending mercenaries to rebel-held territories in eastern Ukraine, along with tanks, mobile artillery units and 7,000 tons of fuel, raising fears of a military escalation in the region.

The mercenaries are being deployed to combat units in Luhansk and Donetsk “after undergoing an intensive training course”, the agency, known as GUR, said in a statement on Facebook. The precise number of mercenaries is unclear, but a senior Ukrainian security official said it was at least 1,000.

The official said they were sent in small groups and the deployment had lasted about three weeks.

This month, the White House accused Moscow of sending saboteurs into eastern Ukraine, potentially to trigger a provocation that could give Russian President Vladimir V. Putin a pretext to order the action of the some 127,000 troops it has deployed near the Ukrainian borders.

The Kremlin denied there were plans to attack Ukraine and pushed back against US intelligence’s assessment that it had sent saboteurs into the country.

“You claim that we are preparing to attack Ukraine, but we have explained many times that this is not the case,” Sergei V. Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, told a conference of press on Friday after his meeting with Secretary of State Antony. J. Blinken in Geneva. Lavrov accused Western countries of destabilizing the situation by sending weapons and military advisers to Ukraine.

No one knows how Russian military action might begin, but tense conditions in eastern Ukraine could easily provide the spark. Separatist forces seized Ukraine’s breakaway provinces in 2014, aided by Russian weapons, equipment and troops. After a series of fierce battles, the war settled into a crushing stalemate, with Ukrainian and rebel forces digging trenches along both sides of the so-called line of contact.

On Friday, the Kremlin-run RIA news agency reported that Ukrainian forces had moved several rocket launchers close to the conflict zone in preparation for a possible attack. The report echoes statements by senior Russian officials who have repeatedly accused Ukraine of preparing to retake rebel territories by force.

Ukraine’s top security official denied attack preparations were underway and said all heavy artillery and rocket systems remained more than 20 miles from the line of conflict, as required by an agreement of the 2015 ceasefire.

Ukraine accuses Russia of sending mercenaries to rebel territories

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