KIEV (Reuters) - NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk discussed possible Western alliance support for Ukraine’s defensive strength on Thursday, while more of its troops were killed in fresh clashes with separatists.
Rasmussen’s visit to Kiev followed a warning by the U.S.-led alliance that Moscow had amassed 20,000 troops near the border and could be planning a ground invasion of Ukraine as it makes progress against the pro-Russian rebels.
The two men discussed the possibility of a proposed NATO trust fund supporting Kiev’s ability in areas including command and control, communications and cyberdefense, the government said in a statement.
Provision of lethal aid to Ukraine by the U.S.-led military alliance did not appear to have been discussed.
The Kiev government announced it was suspending a ceasefire with the rebels at the crash site of the Malaysian airliner that was shot down on July 17, after an international mission halted recovery work there for security reasons.
Defense spokesman Andriy Lysenko told journalists that government forces had clashed 19 times with separatists in the Russian-speaking east, often coming under artillery and missile fire from within Russian territory.
Regional authorities in Donetsk, the east’s main industrial hub and now the main rebel redoubt, said one person had been killed at a hospital when a shell struck on Thursday after a night of intensive artillery attacks overnight.
Government forces, who say they are gradually tightening a noose around the rebels, denied responsibility. “We have accurate information that the Ukrainian military are not shelling those areas,” said Lysenko.
“In the past 24 hours we have lost seven servicemen, and 19 received wounds,” he said.
The new deaths among government forces suggest that Kiev military losses now total more than 400 since the conflict with the pro-Russian separatists erupted in April.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights says the conflict has cost the lives of more than 1,100 people in all, including government forces, rebels and civilians.
Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russia of orchestrating the revolt and arming the rebels, who have declared independent “people’s republics” in the two main industrial regions. Moscow denies involvement.
The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia, while Moscow has retaliated with a sweeping ban on imports of many Western food stuffs.
Fighting has intensified since the shooting down of flight MH17, 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 Kiev’s military offensive.
The Netherlands, which lost 196 of its citizens in the incident, said on Wednesday it was halting the recovery of debris and victims’ belongings because of continued fighting in the area.
The Ukraine government said it would suspend a ceasefire now in the area until an international team of experts were ready to resume recovery work there.
Despite a steady daily loss of lives, government forces have been gaining gradually against the rebels, who are mainly led by Russian citizens and are heavily armed with tanks and artillery and other heavy weaponry that Kiev says has been brought across the border from Russia.
Russia announced military exercises near the border this week, and Western officials fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin could order Russian forces into Ukraine if he sees that the rebels are about to be crushed.
The warning has alarmed many in Kiev.
“We have to take an invasion by Russia very seriously,” said Vitaly Lyakh, a 37-year-old Kiev resident. “Putin loves to fight - look at the Caucasus and Transdniestria. The threat is real, and we have only one way out in the event of an invasion - that is fight until we win.”
“of course, this (warning) is terrible and insulting. But Hasn’t Putin forgotten something here? Why does he want all this? Let him leave us in peace. I hope that we, together with the whole world, will be able to defend our country,” said 52-year-old Valentina Slyusar.
Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Will Waterman