(Recasts with Poroshenko)
KIEV/DONETSK, Ukraine, July 26 Ukrainian
President Petro Poroshenko said on Saturday his country was not
fighting a civil war in its east but was fighting "foreign
mercenaries", hailing soldiers for forcing pro-Russian rebels
out of several towns and cities.
As fighting raged around the rebel strongholds of Donetsk
and Luhansk, the Ukrainian leader awarded members of the newly
formed National Guard with medals for service.
"This is a real fight for the sovereignty of Ukraine, the
territorial integrity of Ukraine, for the independence of
Ukraine," said Poroshenko, wearing military camouflage.
"It is not an internal conflict, it is Ukraine defending its
territory from foreign mercenaries, from bandits and from
terrorists," he told soldiers.
Kiev has accused Moscow of sending the rebels fighters and
weapons across its porous border with Ukraine, a charge Russia
denies. But some battalions have openly said they were made up
of volunteers from various countries, including Russia.
Ukraine's army has forced the rebels back towards the cities
of Donetsk and Luhansk, where the separatists have boosted their
defences, and fighting has raged since a Malaysian airliner was
downed last week.
Shelling and explosions were heard around rebel-held Donetsk
on Saturday, and many shops were shuttered as Ukrainian forces
pressed their military campaign against pro-Russian separatists.
"Last night was terrible. I was woken up at 3 a.m. by the
explosions. The walls shook, the windows shook," said Marina,
who lives in a southern part of the city.
"There was shooting all over the city. And it still goes on.
Maybe it's a little quieter now, but it's all around."
Local officials said some buildings had been damaged, one by
fire, and one woman was wounded.
In Luhansk, rebels said at least 19 civilians had been
killed in fighting overnight and local officials said 60 percent
of the city was left with no electricity after power lines were
Kiev's troops have also advanced from the south and their
frontline checkpoint on a road from the Azov Sea city port of
Mariupol now sits some 10 kilometres outside of Donetsk.
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Donetsk, Lina Kushch in
Kiev, Sergei Karazy in Kharkiv, Writing by Elizabeth Piper and
Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Toby Chopra)