DONETSK, Ukraine (AFP) - Rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine launched a desperate appeal on Sunday for more fighters to join their insurgency against Kiev's rule, saying even women were welcome.
"We have achieved victories and more are to come," boasted Denis Pushilin, a leader of the self-declared "People's Republic of Donetsk" at a rally in the main city in Ukraine's eastern industrial belt.
But he added: "We need strong men to protect our republic because civil war is raging in our region.
"Many men are falling every day, so we need more."
He gave no specific figures on the number of casualties among rebel ranks, although fighting is reported almost every night around insurgent flashpoints such as Slavyansk.
The United Nations said in a report on Friday that 127 people had been killed in fighting in the east since the pro-Russian separatists took up arms against the central government in Kiev in early April.
Pushilin was addressing a crowd of a few hundred people gathered around a huge granite statue of Lenin in the centre of the city of one million.
Pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk and the neighbouring region of Lugansk declared their own sovereign republics after claiming victory in independence referendums on May 11 that were denounced as illegal in Kiev and the West.
The separatists in Donetsk have since set up their own parliament and a government headed by a shadowy Russian "consultant" called Aleksandr Borodai, and appealed to join the Russian Federation.
Donetsk's "defence minister" Igor Strelkov, one of the top rebel commanders in the flashpoint city of Slavyansk, also took the unusual step of issuing a recruitment call in a video posted on YouTube.
"If men are not willing then we have no other option than to call up women and take them into the militias," he said.
"I would have expected there would have been at least 1,000 men willing to risk their lives not just in their home towns but on the frontlines," he added, complaining that many came simply to demand weapons for protection at home.