Pro-Russian rebel forces unravel as Ukraine military cuts off key stronghold

A file picture dated July 28, 2014 shows Igor Strelkov, the top military commander of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic", delivering a press conference in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. The main military commander of pro-Russian rebels battli
A file picture dated July 28, 2014 shows Igor Strelkov, the top military commander of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic", delivering a press conference in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. The main military commander of pro-Russian rebels battling government forces in east Ukraine quit his post on August 14, 2014 , the separatist leadership said. -- PHOTO: AFP

DONETSK, Ukraine (AFP) - Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine suffered dramatic setbacks on Thursday as top military chiefs quit and Ukraine's forces pummelled their strongholds, cutting off a key rebel-held city from the Russian border.

Kiev's advance came as a massive Russian "humanitarian" convoy parked up close to the frontier, with doubts still swirling over whether the trucks would be allowed to cross.

The separatist leadership showed signs of unravelling following four months of fighting that have left more than 2,000 dead and many residents in the region without power or running water, and with dwindling food supplies.

The rebels said their main military chief, Igor Strelkov, had resigned, while the rebel commander in the second-biggest insurgent stronghold of Lugansk, Valery Bolotov, told Russian TV he was "temporarily" stepping down because of earlier injuries.

The announcements came after Ukraine's military said it had completely surrounded Lugansk, cutting all links to the border with Russia, which Kiev believes has been supplying the insurgents with weapons.

Intense shelling on Lugansk and the main insurgent bastion of Donetsk left more than 25 people dead, while Ukrainian forces reported nine troops dead and 18 injured over the past day.

While reiterating its support for Kiev, Washington urged its ally to exercise restraint and keep civilian casualties to a minimum.

"We've stressed the importance of showing restraint to minimise casualties among the civilian... population," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

"We call on the Ukrainians to take every step to avoid the local population as they try to free the city from the separatists," Harf said.

The Russian foreign ministry on Thursday called for all sides to accept an "urgent" ceasefire, saying the situation in the east was "extremely serious".

Russia's convoy of nearly 300 white-tarpaulin-covered lorries meanwhile halted Thursday near the town of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, some 50km from eastern Ukraine, Russian media reported.

A local source told AFP the lorries could try to cross the border near the Ukrainian town of Izvaryne, but it was unclear when this might happen or whether Kiev would allow them to pass.

Russian media said the convoy, which left the Moscow region on Tuesday, carried more than 1,800 tonnes of supplies including medical equipment, baby food, sleeping bags and electric generators.

Ukraine has repeatedly said it will not allow Russian lorries onto its territory and that any aid would have to be unloaded at the border under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

President Petro Poroshenko's office on Wednesday suggested the aid could be allowed in, but only if it was inspected by Ukrainian border guards and international monitors.

Fears have mounted that the aid mission could escalate a conflict that has already brought tensions between Russia and the West to a post-Cold War high.

Ukraine and the West have warned that Moscow's convoy could be a "Trojan horse" bringing military help to pro-Russian insurgents, who have been losing ground to government troops in the east.

The ICRC - which denies there was ever any agreement with Moscow on a convoy - said Thursday that it had made contact with the leader of the Russian operation, but made no other comment.

Ukraine dispatched its own aid convoys to the industrial east as it tried to race Moscow to hand out much-needed assistance to people in the blighted region.

Kiev said it was sending 75 lorries with 800 tonnes of aid to the Lugansk region.

The need for aid was clear, as heavy shelling smashed into the centre of Donetsk, once a bustling city of one million.

Health authorities said 74 civilians were killed and 116 wounded over the past three days.

Three people were killed on Thursday, local authorities said, while heavy fire in Lugansk left another 22 dead, an official from the regional administration told AFP on condition of anonymity.

More than 2,000 people have died in the four-month conflict, the UN human rights agency said Wednesday, noting the death toll had doubled in just two weeks.

Some 285,000 people are also estimated to have fled their homes in the east.

The crisis has led to tit-for-tat sanctions between the West and Russia over Moscow's alleged support for the insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

On Thursday President Vladimir Putin said Russia should not let the West treat it "with disdain" but also should not "fence itself off from the outside world".

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