Ukraine fighting intensifies ahead of separatist vote



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14/11/01  Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed and heavy shelling erupted Saturday across the country s south-east on the eve of separatist elections backed by Russia, but condemned by Kiev and Western governments. Losses in the last 24 hours "as a result of fighting were six servicemen killed and 10 wounded," Volodymyr Polyovy, spokesman for the National Security and Defence Council, said. Hours later, military officials said another soldier had died and six were wounded in shelling by Grad multiple rockets. Polyovy said the deaths showed separatist forces "continue to violate the ceasefire agreement" signed September 5 in an attempt to defuse a crisis that has led to the worst tensions between Russia and the West since the Cold War. There was intensive shelling at the ruins of Donetsk airport, which remains partly in Ukrainian hands, despite lying in territory mostly controled by the separatists, officials said. Mid-morning Saturday, explosions could be heard about every five seconds, accompanied by the sound of machine-guns, AFP correspondents in Donetsk said. However, President Petro Poroshenko announced on his Facebook page that 25 soldiers held prisoner by the separatists had been freed -- a requirement of the September ceasefire that has met with relative success. - Rebel election - The bombardments formed a frightening backdrop to elections on Sunday in the self-declared, pro-Russian statelets known as the Donetsk People s Republic and the Lugansk People s Republic.

Pro-Russian gunmen guard Alexander Zakharchenko (C), Prime Minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic and presidential candidate on October 31, 2014 in Donetsk

There were no signs of polling stations in Donetsk near the airport and rebel soldiers deployed there said they didn t know of any stations in the area. However, there was little doubt about the winners of the two polls, with separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko on course to become head of the Donetsk republic and Igor Plotnitsky in Lugansk. Separatist authorities, who have close links with their Russian counterparts, say three million ballots have been printed and that voting by Internet has already started. There s even an exit poll planned for late.