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July 24, 2017

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Ukraine presses offensive with Western backing

KIEV--Ukrainian troops backed by tanks and fighter bombers suffered their first losses on Wednesday as they pressed on with a renewed offensive against pro-Kremlin insurgents that has drawn Russian ire but also vital U.S. and German support.

The return of all-out fighting in Europe's worst security crisis in nearly two decades set off a new international scramble to dampen hostilities in the strategic ex-Soviet state.

"We will not ease up ... in looking for diplomatic solutions to the conflict. But we are still a long way from where we would like to be," German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a joint press appearance with NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Monday took the risky step of contradicting his European allies for the first time since his May 25 elections by ripping up a 10-day truce.

But Merkel appear to absolve Poroshenko for the truce's failure and accused the rebels of rejecting Kiev's peace push.

"It is unfortunate that during the 10-day unilateral ... cease-fire proclaimed by the Ukrainian president there was no significant reaction to the peace plan, and that the separatists have so far not accepted such a cease-fire," Merkel said.

Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers were due to meet their counterparts from Germany and France in Berlin later on Wednesday in a bid to find some common ground that could establish a long-term truce.

But Ukrainian leaders said their military operation was progressing with a resolve to stand up to what they see as a last-ditch Russian effort to halt their new westward drive.

"Everything is going according to plan. The advantage is on our sides," acting Defense Minister Mykhailo Koval told reporters.

A spokesman for the national security and defense council in Kiev said militias killed four Ukrainian soldier and wounded 10 others in separate mortar fire attacks along the Russian border.

They were the first casualties reported by Kiev in the second stage of the low-scale war. Regional officials on Tuesday had also confirmed the deaths of four civilians in a roadside attack on their bus.

A rebel spokesman in the industrial province of Lugansk told Russian media that government forces' shelling had killed 10 civilians overnight.

An AFP team in the region could not immediately verify the claim.

But the Russian foreign ministry once again called on the new "Ukrainian leaders, if they are still able to sanely assess the consequences of their criminal policies, to stop attacking civilians and shelling their own villages."

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