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For the latest summary of evidence surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 see our separate article: Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?
The press office of the governor of the Lugansk region, Hennadiy Moskal, has reported that Russian-backed fighters attempted an assault last night on the Ukrainian-held settlement of Tryokhizbenka, on the northern banks of the Seversky Donets river, north of the Bakhmutka highway.
Ukrainska Pravda reports that the governor’s office claimed that around 15 people, armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers tried to cross a wrecked bridge over the river (which here forms the demarcation line between the two sides).
The group were reportedly repelled by Ukrainian fire. After retreating back across the river, they fired on the Ukrainian troops with rocket-propelled grenades.
Moskals’s office say there were no Ukrainian casualties.
The bridge across the Seversky Donets was, Ukrainska Pravda reports, severely damaged after being blown up last summer, allegedly by Russian-backed fighters during their retreat.
Last Saturday, the bridge was further damaged by another blast, but pedestrian crossings are still, at some risk, possible.
The Lugansk Regional Administration thinks that the attack was conducted by fighters from the so-called ‘Army of the Don Cossacks,’ who control the territory to the south.
Yesterday, Moskal’s office reported that Russian-backed fighters had crossed another bridge on the Seversky Donets, near Stanitsa Luganskaya, to the east. Having crossed the bridge, the militants were reported to be building a defensive position. To the west, a military source told Informator.lg.ua that Russian-backed fighters had also crossed a rail bridge.
Ukrainian troops were reported to be prepared to use force to remove them but feared a provocation may be used to end the ceasefire.
Both these events suggest the Bakhmutka area, the scene of continuous fighting since the first Minsk agreement, may be the scene of another major flashpoint.
Earlier, Moskal’s office reported that both today and last night, there had been periodic fire from automatic weapons on the outskirts of Krymskoye and Sokolniki, west of Tryokhizbenka, on the southern banks of the river.
At the 29th checkpoint on the Bakhmutka highway, blasts from mortar shells and bursts of automatic gunfire could occasionally be heard. To the south-west, Ukrainian positions on the outskirts of Troitskoye, north-east of Debaltsevo, were shelled with artillery and mortars, while distant blasts could be heard in Popasnaya.
— Pierre Vaux
As we’ve been reporting, Russia has deployed additional troops, and the Iskander nuclear missile launcher, to Kaliningrad, a region of Russia surrounded by Lithuania, Poland, and the Baltic Sea:
Last week the U.S. Department of Defense reported that they will hold exercises with the Patriot missile in Poland in response to Russia’s recent aggression. The Patriot is an anti-ballistic missile SAM system. The DoD statement is below:
U.S. and Polish forces will conduct an exercise later this month involving a U.S. Patriot missile battery and Poland’s 3rd Warsaw Air Defense Missile Brigade, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren announced today.
The exercise will involve some 100 U.S. soldiers and 30 vehicles at a location on Polish territory.
Warren called the exercise part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, which is designed to reassure allies, demonstrate freedom of movement and deter regional aggression on the eastern flank of NATO. The mission began in response to Russia’s armed support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea a year ago.
Today Kontakt24 TV reports that Patriot missiles have been spotted on the streets of Poland:
Russia has responded to pre-planned NATO military drills by launching a series of emergency military drills of its own. International Business Times reports that Russia is moving nuclear-capable weapons closer to NATO bombers, including the occupied Crimean peninsula and the Kaliningrad region:
Sophisticated Tupolev 22-M3 bombers are being mobilised in Crimea, the former Ukrainian region which later annexed to Russia, while missiles are being positioned in Kaliningrad region.
The Iskander missiles deployed in Kaliningrad region, which borders Poland and Lithuania, have a target range of about 500kms and several Nato members fall under the periphery.
The latest deployment being conducted across Russia’s several military units involve around 40,000 troops. Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the drills in a surprise show of strength, when tensions with the Western world are at its worst.
Poland has said the Moscow’s latest move is a veiled threat to the Nato states in order to put pressure on the alliance to tread soft on Russia, while discussing economic sanctions later this week.
The Russian state news agency TASS adds that according to a source in the Russian Defense Ministry, the deployment of Tupolev TU-22M3s to Crimea and Iskander missile systems and ground troops to the western military region and Kaliningrad are all part of the “snap drills,” a “surprise combat readiness inspection” which has mobilized a large part of the Russian military.
— James Miller
The pro-separatist Donetsk News Agency (DAN) website reports that the leaders of both the Donetsk and Lugansk ‘People’s Republics’ have announced that, unless the Ukrainian government revokes changes made to the ‘special status’ law on self-governance for separatist-held territory, then compromise between the two sides will be impossible.
Yesterday, the Verkhovna Rada voted to pass the special status bill with the contingency that elections be held under Ukrainian law beforehand.
The separatists objected to this, stating that this was a digression from the Minsk peace plan.
DAN reports that the DNR leader, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, and the LNR leader, Igor Plotnitsky, had made a joint statement.
The Interpreter translates:
“The DNR and LNR declare that no compromise whatsoever with Kiev is possible until yesterday’s shameful decision by Poroshenko and the Verkhovna Rada is cancelled,” says the document, received today by DAN.
“At the time, we were unenthusiastic, but agreed nonetheless on a special status for the Donbass as part of a reformed Ukraine, even though our people want full independence. We chose this, so as to stop the shedding of fraternal blood. But Ukraine has not been reformed. She, as under Kuchma, Yushchenko and Yanukovych, is ruled by an oligarchic clique, which does not give a damn about people,” continued Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky.
“By denying the Donbass special status, Kiev has trampled the fragile Minsk peace to pieces and brought the situation to a dead end,” said the leaders of the two republics.
The leaders also objected to a Rada decision to appeal to the UN for peacekeepers, claiming this also violated the Minsk agreement. A point that had been stressed in what the SBU claimed to be intercepted memos to the separatist leadership from Vladislav Surkov last month.
As we reported yesterday, the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists now appear to be on collision course for another round of confrontation.
— Pierre Vaux
Railway lines in two strategically important areas have been damaged after explosions yesterday and this morning.
Novosti Donbassa reports that the Interior Ministry’s press service announced that a blast took place at a 7:00 (5:00 GMT) on the line between the Yelenovka and Yuzhnodonbasskaya stations, north of Volnovkaha.
This section of track crosses the front line between Ukrainian and separatist-held territory:
According to the Interior Ministry, 150 metres of paired and single-line track was damaged by the blast. Rail movements are suspended over this section.
Meanwhile, in the Lugansk region, a railway bridge near the Bakhmutka highway was damaged by a blast yesterday.
UNIAN reports that the press office of the governor of the region, Hennadiy Moskal, announced today that a rail bridge between Ukrainian-held Orekhovo and separatist-held Golubovka, had been damaged by an blast detonated by unknown individuals.
We have identified two rail bridges along this section of track, though we do not know which was damaged yesterday.
UNIAN notes that there have been other, recent, acts of sabotage on this same stretch of track, with blasts on February 12 and March 9.
— Pierre Vaux
Donetsk news site 62.ua reports that residents of the separatist-held city reported a powerful explosion today at around 11:00 (9:00 GMT).
The blast was reported to be audible across the city with witnesses describing a loud explosion but no shock wave.
62.ua had quotes from social media:
“Seems like another explosion, audible across all of Donetsk, there was no shock wave.”
“Didn’t seem like incoming, started loud, but then distant and muffled.”
The blast was even heard in Makeyevka, to the east.
So far, there are no photographs or video of the blast that we can find.
— Pierre Vaux
Ukrainska Pravda reports that Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security Council (NSDC), has announced that one Ukrainian soldier has been killed and five wounded over the last 24 hours.
Lysenko said that the most intense fighting had been seen in villages to the east of Mariupol.
The NSDC spokesman also claimed that the separatists were spreading disinformation about a new offensive, with the aim of creating panic.
Earlier this morning, Ukrainska Pravda reported on a briefing on last night’s attacks from Anatoly Stelmakh, spokesman for the Ukrainian military’s Anti-Terrorism Operation (ATO).
The Interpreter translates:
According to the ATO press centre, over the night from the 17th to the 18th of March, from 20:00 [18:00 GMT] to 6 in the morning, the enemy randomly fired on our troops with small arms 11 times.
In the Donetsk region, “Russo-terrorist groups” fired four times on Opytnoye, twice on Avdeyevka and once on Peski.
In the Mariupol aream the village of Shirokino has been the scene of a stand-off for several weeks in a row now.
“Last night the enemy fired twice on this settlement with small arms. Armed provocations by the militants were also recorded near Chermalyk,” report the ATO headquarters.
“Despite the attempts by some gangs of bandits to set off an armed confrontation, servicemen of the ATO forces are opening fire only in response and only in cases where there is a direct threat to the lives of our soldiers,” they stress.
— Pierre Vaux