Eighteen Ukrainian servicemen have been killed and 54 injured in fresh fighting overnight against separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine, a military spokesman said on Wednesday.
Spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, said government forces had clashed with separatists 25 times in parts of eastern Ukraine near the Russian border in the 24 hours up to Wednesday morning as they continued to squeeze rebel positions.
Ukrainian forces, Lysenko said, had again been shelled from inside Russian territory while Ukrainian frontier guards near the border town of Luhansk had come under a four-hour mortar and artillery attack.
“In the past 24 hours 18 service personnel have been killed in battle and 54 have been wounded,” he told journalists, saying casualties had been sustained in several different incidents in the east.
Airstrikes near Donetsk
Meanwhile, residents in Donetsk, east Ukraine's main industrial hub and now the main redoubt of the rebels, said Ukrainian warplanes had carried out airstrikes overnight.
The airstrike hit the Kalininsky neighborhood only 5 kilometers (3 miles) east of Donetsk's central square. It was the first airstrike to hit close to the center of Donetsk since Ukrainian forces heavily bombarded the airport in May in their bid to halt the insurgency in the industrial east of the country.
Lysenko, questioned over the reports, denied that Ukrainian planes had carried out airstrikes on the town of nearly 1 million and said the only Ukrainian plane near the town had been an aircraft providing communications support for troops on the ground.
Previously, Kyiv has accused the rebels of firing at civilian areas. But the government has offered little evidence to prove their claims, which Human Rights Watch and others have questioned.
“The Ukrainian military does not bomb the towns of Donetsk and Luhansk or any other similar populated places,” he said.
The rebels said the strike occurred at 12:40am (2140 GMT).
But the strike came as Kyiv signaled a harder push to retake the disputed area.
On Wednesday, the spokesman for the Ukrainian operation in the east, Oleksiy Dmitrashkivsky, told the French news agency AFP: "The noose is tightening around Donetsk, Lugansk and Gorlivka," the main rebel strongholds.
"Our forces are regrouping, maneuvering and engineers are strengthening the fortification of roadblocks, preparing for the liberation of these cities," he added.
Ukraine's military has made major advances over the past month and says it has almost cut off Donetsk from the Russian border and second rebel bastion of Lugansk.
But amid these advances government forces have continued to face heavy bombardments. Wednesday's announcement that 18 soldiers had been killed and 54 injured in fighting over the past 24 hours was the highest daily toll in weeks.
Three civilians were also killed overnight amid shelling on different suburbs of Donetsk, the city council said. This included two deaths already announced Tuesday evening.
Government troops have been battling the rebels since April in the Russian-speaking east in a conflict which the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights says has cost the lives of more than 1,100 people, including government forces, rebels and civilians.
The Red Cross has labeled the conflict in east Ukraine a civil war.
A U.N. High Commissioners for Refugees report on Tuesday said more than 117,000 people are internally displaced in Ukraine and an estimated 168,000 have crossed into Russia to avoid the fighting.
The deaths overnight among government forces suggests that Kyiv military losses now total around 400.
Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russia of orchestrating the revolt and arming the rebels - something denied by Moscow. The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia.
Fighting has intensified since the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner last month, killing all 298 people on board - an act the West laid at the door of the rebels. Russia and the rebels blame the disaster on Kyiv's military offensive.
As the rebels struggle to push back Kyiv's forces, the wild card will be whether Russia will come to their rescue.
President Vladimir Putin has faced increasing pressure from Russian nationalists urging him to send in the army to back the insurgency, and Western leaders have accused Russia of building up troops along the border with Ukraine.
Russia has denied any buildup on the border.
The Russian Defense Ministry on Tuesday also shrugged off U.S. warnings that an air force exercise in southern Russia this week was adding to tensions, saying that the drills are conducted hundreds of kilometers away from the Ukrainian border.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters, AFP and AP.