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Russian troops are 'directly involved' in Ukraine conflict

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Ukraine and the West said Thursday that Russian troops were actively involved in the fighting tearing apart the east of the country, raising fears of a direct military confrontation between Kiev and its former Soviet masters.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko scrapped a trip to Turkey and called an urgent meeting of his security chiefs over what a top official described as a “direct invasion” by Russia.

NATO said at least 1,000 troops were on the ground supporting pro-Kremlin separatists who have been fighting against Kiev's rule since April, but Russia insisted none of its soldiers were on Ukrainian soil.

The latest rapid-fire developments have sent alarm bells ringing in the United States and in Europe, where EU leaders are set to discuss the crisis on their doorstep at a weekend summit.

U.S. officials accused Russian troops of being behind a lightning counter-offensive that has seen pro-Moscow rebels seize swathes of territory from government forces, dramatically turning the tide in the four-month conflict.

“The place for the president today is in Kiev,” Poroshenko said, speaking of a “sharp deterioration ... as Russian troops have been sent into Ukraine.”

Kiev said Russian soldiers had seized control of a key southeastern border town and a string of villages in an area where fighting had been raging for days.

“An increasing number of Russian troops are intervening directly in fighting on Ukrainian territory,” the U.S. ambassador to Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt wrote on Twitter.

A NATO official said the supply of arms to the rebels had also increased in both “volume and quantity.”

But Russia swiftly denied the allegations, with its envoy to the OSCE pan-European security body insisting: “There are no Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine.”

Kiev had called on the West for urgent help after a rebel counter-offensive from the southeast border appeared to smash through an army blockade around the separatist stronghold of Donetsk and threaten the government-held port city of Mariupol.

The gains by the separatist fighters come after weeks of government offensives that had seen troops push deep into the last holdout rebel bastions in Ukraine's industrial heartland.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin for having “deliberately unleashed a war in Europe” and called for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting.

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