Seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed and eight wounded when they were ambushed by pro-Russian separatists near the eastern Ukrainian town of Kramatorsk, the Ukrainian defence ministry said.
It was the biggest single loss of life by the Ukrainian army since soldiers were sent into the mainly Russian-speaking east of the country to break up armed separatist groups who have seized control of towns and public buildings in a bid to further demands for autonomy.
The ministry, in a statement published on its website, said an armored column came under fire as it approached a bridge near a village 20 km from Kramatorsk, one of several hot spots in the region where the army has had only limited success against the separatists.
About 30 rebels, who had taken cover among bushes along a river, attacked with grenade-launchers and automatic weapons, immediately killing two soldiers and wounding three others, it said.
Donetsk is one of two regions declared separate from Ukraine after referendums deemed illegal by Kiev, the US and EU.
The incident took place the same day Germany\’s foreign minister traveled to Ukraine to push for a negotiated solution to the country\’s crisis.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after arriving in Kyiv he hoped a government-sponsored "round table" this week involving Ukrainian politicians and civic groups from across the country, would help disarm pro-Russian separatists before presidential and mayoral elections scheduled for May 25.
Steinmeier met with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk at Kyiv\’s Borispol Airport before traveling to the southern port city of Odessa, where street fighting escalating into a building fire on May 2 killed more than 40 people, most of them separatist supporters. The German foreign minister said the situation in Ukraine remains "dangerous and threatening."
The German minister\’s trip is aimed at supporting a "road map" for settling the crisis outlined by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It calls for both sides in Ukraine to refrain from violence, an immediate amnesty for those involved in the fighting, and talks on decentralization of the country and the status of the Russian language.
The diplomatic push by Germany and the U.S. follows declarations of independence Monday by two regions of eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, where separatists held self-rule referendums on Sunday.
After declaring independence from Ukraine, separatist leaders in the self-declared Donetsk People\’s Republic also asked Moscow to consider formally "absorbing" the region into the Russian Federation.
Russia\’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it expects the pro-Russian "self-defense forces" in eastern Ukraine to "react appropriately" if Kyiv agrees to halt "punitive actions" there and withdraw its military forces, as well as right-wing paramilitary forces and "mercenaries," from the region.
Moscow, which has said it respects the results of Sunday\’s referendums and called for a "dialogue" between the Ukrainian government and the two breakaway regions, has not yet responded to the Donetsk request to be absorbed by Russia.
Moscow retaliated for U.S. sanctions on Tuesday, casting doubt on the long-term future of the International Space Station, a $100 billion, 15-nation project which was supposed to end the space race of the Cold War era.