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Ukraine Orders Full Military Alert, as New Casualties Strain Cease-fire

Ukraine has ordered its armed forces to maintain "full combat readiness" near the Russian border, after new fighting and reports of at least 12 more fatalities further strained an already-shaky cease-fire with pro-Russian separatists.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's order came Wednesday, as separatists in the rebel-held city of Donetsk reported two shelling deaths in a residential area and Ukrainian authorities reported at least 10 fatalities in a nearby town.

The casualties were the first reported since Ukraine's parliament voted Tuesday to grant rebels temporary self-rule in the parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions already under rebel control.

That temporary rule concession and a broad amnesty for many rebel fighters were Ukraine's strongest public peace overtures since separatists launched their rebellion against Kyiv's rule five months ago.

Authorities say nearly 3,000 people have died in the fighting, which has paralyzed daily life in eastern Ukraine and pushed Western governments to impose wide-ranging economic sanctions on Russia for supporting the rebellion.

The latest fighting was reported just hours ahead of the arrival in Washington of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

The Ukraine leader, who declared a cease-fire with rebels on September 5, is set to hold talks Thursday with President Barack Obama and address U.S. lawmakers. He is widely expected to press U.S. officials for direct military supplies, beyond the $70 million promised by Washington late last month.

The Obama administration has so far stopped short of supplying lethal aid to the Kyiv government, choosing instead to focus on punishing Moscow with wide-raging economic sanctions for supporting the rebel movement.

Russia's Foreign Ministry on Wednesday called the law granting temporary self-rule to rebel-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine "a step in the right direction." It warned that any attempts by "known political groups in Ukraine" to fundamentally change or revoke the measure would lead to renewed confrontation and undermine peace efforts.

The law also calls for local elections to be held in the rebel-controlled areas on December 7. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a Cabinet meeting Wednesday that the government would allocate money for that vote only if it is open and transparent, and does not, in his words, "legalize the terrorists" - meaning the pro-Russian separatists and their self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk "people's republics."

Yatsenyuk also said that while the law on self-rule would allow rebel-controlled areas to set up their own police forces, they will have to operate under Ukrainian law and the jurisdiction of the central government.

Russian news agencies on Wednesday quoted officials of the Donetsk People's Republic as saying they would neither hold the local elections called by Kyiv nor participate in national parliamentary elections set for October 26.