The United States is accusing Russia of firing on Ukrainian military positions in troubled eastern Ukraine from inside Russia. And Washington contends Moscow intends to supply pro-Russian rebels with bigger and more powerful weaponry to fight Kyiv's forces.
A U.S. Defense Department spokesman said Russian forces fired artillery shots into Ukraine on Thursday. He described the Russian assault as "a clear escalation" of weeks-long fighting in eastern Ukraine between separatist rebels and the Ukrainian military attempting to retake control of rebel-held cities.
At the State Department in Washington, spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. has "new evidence" from "our intelligence friends" that the Russians "intend to deliver heavier and more powerful rocket launchers to the separatist forces."
She declined to say what the information was based on or divulge the "source and methods" of the intelligence.
Russia has in the past denied that it is involved in the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine. The United States and its European allies accuse Moscow of fomenting the unrest in Ukraine by training and arming rebels.
The U.S. allegations come a week after a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board
Ukraine PM quits
Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has announced he is resigning, amid the break-up of the country’s ruling coalition in parliament.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk addresses parliament in Kyiv July 24, 2014.
Yatsenyuk made the announcement Thursday, hours after two major political parties in the ruling coalition pulled out. Usually mild-mannered and even-keeled, he expressed frustration over parliament’s failure to pass crucial energy legislation and increase army financing as the county battles pro-Russia separatists in its east and tries to deal with the aftermath of a plane downing that killed 298 people.
Referring to protests that ousted the previous government under president Viktor Yanukovych, he said Ukraine's politicians risk losing the hearts and minds of the thousands who protested for months in the Maidan (Kyiv’s central square) choosing a European course over continued subservience to Moscow.
But Yatsenyuk, a central figure in talks with the European Union and the United States, will not be able to leave office immediately as he is expected to continue in his duties until a new prime minister and government are installed, observers say.
Majority coalition break-up
Hours earlier, lawmakers set the stage for early parliamentary elections to be held in Ukraine later this year.
Members of parliament, mainly from two parties, dissolved a majority coalition, opening the way for President Petro Poroshenko to call an early vote, long demanded by many politicians and activists.
Parliament members surround Oleh Tyahnybok (C), leader of the Svoboda (Freedom) Party, as he delivers a speech at the rostrum during a session in Kyiv July 24, 2014.
Ukraine’s current legislature is viewed by many in the country as a remnant of the pro-Moscow regime of president Viktor Yanukovych who was ousted in February amid massive anti-government protests.
Poroshenko, who was overwhelmingly elected in May, welcomed the break-up of the coalition saying that early parliamentary elections will give Ukrainians the opportunity of a “full reset.”
“Society wants a full reset of state authorities,” Poroshenko said in a statement, adding the move showed that those who decided to quit the coalition were acting on the will of the people.
One nationalist lawmaker said an early poll will cleanse parliament of “Moscow agents.”
“We believe that in the current situation, a parliament which protects state criminals, Moscow agents, which refuses to strip immunity from those people who are working for the Kremlin, should not exist,'' said Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the Svoboda (Freedom) party, one of the two that left the majority coalition.
In Ukraine, lawmakers enjoy immunity from prosecution.
Elections are expected to be held in October.
Amid reports of continued fighting in the country’s east, Ukraine’s military says it is pressing on with a push-back of rebels into one of their main strongholds of Donetsk, with officials saying separatist fighters are abandoning positions outside the city.
``We are noticing the further strengthening... of attack positions and defense, as well as the movement of armored vehicles into towns around Donetsk, in Horlivka and Ilovaisk,'' the Ukrainian military said in a statement Thursday.
The sound of artillery fire echoed in the south and northwest of Donetsk with one district reportedly without electricity, due to damaged substations, local officials said.
Meanwhile, remote-controlled explosive devices have been found in a school in the city of Slovyansk, formerly held by rebels, a Ukrainian security official said.
Authorities assume rebels were planning to detonate them when children are scheduled to return to school in early September, said Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council at a briefing Thursday.
Commenting on two Ukrainian military jets downed Wednesday, Lysenko softened earlier accusations that one of them may have been shot down with a missile fired from Russia. Kyiv was “not accusing anyone,” but only considering possible scenarios, he said. He also said that the jets’ pilots had survived.
More Russia sanctions
European Union ambassadors agreed on Thursday to expand sanctions on Russia over Ukraine by adding 15 people and 18 companies or other organizations to the bloc's existing list of punitive measures, diplomats said.
However, after lengthy talks in Brussels, they failed to reach agreement on sectoral sanctions against the Russian economy and are to resume discussions on Friday morning, diplomats said.
The ambassadors also agreed to expand the criteria for the EU's sanctions to include companies and people who support Russian decision-makers deemed responsible for destabilizing Ukraine.
Russia reacted harshly to the prospect of sectoral sanctions.
“In my view the sectoral sanctions against Russia may well trigger a long anticipated end-game of the present global crisis,” said Russia’s ambassador to Britain Alexander Yakovenko.
Yakovenko also blasted a decision by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to curtail cooperation with Russia, saying it would harm all parties involved.
A freelance journalist working for CNN has been abducted in eastern Ukraine, the latest in a string of attacks on media workers in recent weeks.
The U.S. network made Anton Skiba's kidnapping public Thursday, two days after armed separatists allegedly took him from a hotel room in rebel-held Donetsk.
Skiba said in a brief phone call with CNN on Wednesday that he was being questioned at the headquarters of the Donetsk security services.
The network said it had not immediately publicized Skiba's abduction as efforts were made since Tuesday to obtain his release.
U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt wrote on Twitter Thursday that the intimidation of journalists in Donetsk must stop.
At least 13 other journalists have been injured or detained while working in eastern Ukraine since early July, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Some information provided by Reuters.