Ukrainian troops make large in-roads into rebel-held territory at Luhansk
More than 50 civilians die and dozens more injured in day of deadly clashes
Fresh allegations Russian forces are on the ground inside rebel-territory
An abandoned BMD-s airborne combat vehicle reportedly discovered
Huge convoy of Russian aid trucks has been stuck at the Ukraine border
Guards started to inspect them today amid hopes they will soon be on move
Many in Luhansk have gone without running water and electricity for weeks
Russia has stepped up scrutiny of McDonald's restaurants within its borders
Move comes after tit-for-tat sanctions by Russia and West over the conflict
Ukrainian Economy Minister Pavlo Sheremeta has tendered his resignation
WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
Published: 16:07 EST, 20 August 2014 | Updated: 12:06 EST, 21 August 2014>
Ukrainian troops have made large in-roads into rebel-held territory as 52 civilians were killed and dozens more injured in another spell of deadly clashes.
Forces have seized control over a large part of the separatist stronghold of Luhansk and are nearly encircling Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city.
But violence has continued today with at least two people killed and an unspecified number wounded following an artillery strike on a Donetsk suburb, the mayor's office said.
It comes as new alleged 'evidence' emerged of Russian forces on the ground inside rebel-controlled Ukraine after the discovery of an abandoned BMD-2 airborne combat vehicle.
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A pro-Russian militant lies on his back with his arms tied between his back as armed Ukrainian forces stand over him in the village of Chornukhine in the Lugansk region
The man is told to crouch down by the roadside next a Ukrainian soldier in the village of Chornukhine. A Ukrainian warplane was blown out of the sky over rebel-held territory as fierce clashes between government troops and pro-Russian insurgents left dozens of civilians dead
A Russian airborne combat vehicle belonging to Pskov air assault division was found abandoned in the Lugansk region amid allegations Russian forces on the ground inside rebel-controlled Ukraine
The armoured vehicle is reported to have been located in the Lutugino district of Lugansk region and allegedly belonged to elite paratroopers, the 1st Air Assault Detachment of army unit number 74268 of the Pskov air assault division.
It was said to have been abandoned some 30 miles from the Russian border, well inside Ukrainain territory, though for now there is no independent verification of the claim.
It comes as the Red Cross revealed that Ukrainian authorities have delayed the delivery of Russian aid to eastern Ukraine with many in Luhansk having gone without running water and electricity for nearly three weeks.
But this afternoon border guards had started the process of inspecting the vehicles and some have begun to clear customs, Ukrainian border guards said.
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The massive convoy of 200 trucks has been stuck at the border between the two nations for a week because Ukraine is worried that it could be used to deliver military supplies to pro-Russian separatists.
Moscow says the mission is purely humanitarian and intended for civilians trapped by the conflict.
In another day of turmoil in the war-torn country, it was also revealed that Ukrainian Economy Minister Pavlo Sheremeta has tendered his resignation and voiced frustration at not being able to push ahead with much-needed economic reform.
It happened on the day that alleged evidenced surfaced of Russian forces on the ground in parts of rebel-controlled Ukraine.
The armoured vehicle is reported to have been located in the Lutugino district and contained a number of documents.
Moscow has denied the reports with a spokesman for Russia's defense ministry saying the vehicle in the photos did not belong to Russia and the documents found had not been used for five years.
A Kalashnikov machine gun for tanks was found in an abandoned airborne combat vehicle in the Lugansk region. There are claims the vehicle belonged to elite Russian paratroopers
Personal belongings of a senior lieutenant 'Popov' (left) were found in the abandoned combat vehicle while a list of soldiers was also discovered (right)
But Ukrainian journalist Leonid Shvets claimed they included duty and holiday journals of Russian soldiers, adding: 'All documents were found inside the vehicle.
'The crew was lost somewhere on the way.'
Pictures show personal possessions of the crew including credit cards and a driving license, as well as 'a heavy Kalashnikov machine gun for tanks which belongs to the soldier N.D.Surnachev,' said another journalist Roman Bochkala who published the images.
'His name can be found in the list of the soldiers who were on duty that evening, discovered inside the abandoned combat vehicle.
'Other names of soldiers are also there, supposedly all of those are fighting in Ukraine now.'
The vehicle bears the number 275, though an effort was apparently made to daub its identification marks.
A Russian combat manual and drill regulation was also photographed.
If confirmed, the claim is damaging to Russia which has maintained that no soldiers or equipment from Vladimir Putin's forces has been sent into Ukraine.
The allegation is that these are serving troops not mercenaries.
'We see the passport of Nikolai S. Krygin who is from Pskov region, born in 1994,' wrote Bochkala.
These items were all found inside the abandoned vehicle and included a torch, clothing, a series of documents and blue berets. Blue berets are worn by Russian air assault troops
Journalists in Ukraine say this combat manual of Russian air assault forces was also discovered in the vehicle, abandoned after a clash with Ukrainian forces near Georgievka village
'It tells us that Putin has problems with experienced soldiers, so he has to use young inexperienced men. There is other evidence proving that Russian army is fighting in Ukraine.'
Credit cards and a driving license belonging to an Ilya Maximov were found as well as the personal possessions of the detachment commander, a Lieutenant Popov.
The vehicle was abandoned after a clash with Ukrainian forces near Georgievka village, several miles south of Lugansk city which has been at the apex of a major operation by Ukrainian troops this week to recapture if from pro-Moscow separatists, it was claimed.
'Afterwards the battle field was full of blue berets and Rollton Chinese noodle soup boxes,' claimed Bochkala citing soldiers in the 24th brigade of the Ukrainian army and from the 'Storm' special forces unit.
Blue berets are worn by Russian air assault troops.
'The Pskov division is losing soldiers. Very soon many zinc coffins will go back to Russia and there will be not nameless rebels inside but young sons of the Motherland killed for some unknown purpose.
Included in the stash were 'Drill Regulations of Russian Army' and other documents
Soldier Ilya Maximov's Russian driving license and other cards were also discovered
'And if that woman wrote me the truth, it shows the specific cynicism of Putin towards his own citizens.
'What sort of army exercise may you have abroad? This very evidence must be urgently demonstrated to the ambassadors of the foreign states and sent to international organisations where it should be properly evaluated.
'Whatever we are hoping for, we see here a true army invasion is that the Russian Federation must be called an aggressor.
Ukraine security officials said this was one of two vehicles captured recently.
'Ukrainian soldiers captured two armoured vehicles of Russia's Pskov Airborne division near Lugansk,' said security spokesman Andriy Lysenko, adding that the troops manning the vehicles had fled.
Ukrainian troops have been trying for weeks to drive the rebels out of Luhansk and cut off Donetsk, a city of a million that has shrunk by a third as frightened residents fled.
The Museum of Donetsk was one of the buildings destroyed by artillery shelling in Donetsk. In the last few days, several neighborhoods have been hit with sustained fire
Stuffed animals lie under the rubble at the Museum of Donetsk after parts of the wall and ceiling were caved in for artillery fire
A woman sifts through the damaged artifacts in the ruins of the Museum of Donetsk after it was destroyed by artillery fire
Panels and electrical cables hang from the ceiling of the Museum of Donetsk while a woman walks through the room wearing a protective face mask
Clean-up operation: A woman sweeps broken glass up from the floor of the museum
In the last few days, several neighborhoods in Donetsk have been hit with sustained artillery fire and fighting on the city's outskirts has become more intense.
The death toll mounted quickly yesterday. In the Donetsk region, 43 locals were killed and 42 wounded in less than two days, including in two deadly artillery attacks on Wednesday afternoon in the capital of Donetsk, local authorities said.
Nine troops died and 22 were wounded in fighting in a town outside Donetsk.
Luhansk city authorities reported running battles between the two sides.
By early evening, government forces took control of 'significant parts' of Luhansk, an eastern city just 12 miles from the Russian border, said Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's National Security Council.
A Ukrainian SU-25 plane was also shot down near Luhansk, Lysenko told TV station 112 late last night. He said the location of the pilot was still unknown.
Hard-hit Luhansk has been without electricity, running water or phone connections for 18 days due to the fighting.
Residents line up to collect drinking water in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. Many people in the region have gone without running water and electricity for 18 days
A dead man is carried on a stretcher after shelling by the Ukrainian forces in Makiivka 16 miles from Donetsk, eastern Ukraine
A woman cries near her house in the city of Makeyevka, in the Donetsk region. Street battles have been raging in nearby Ilovaysk with authorities saying nine soldiers died in the area in the last 24 hours
Fighting was still being reported this afternoon.
'People hardly leave their homes for fear of being caught in the middle of ongoing fighting, with intermittent shelling into residential areas placing civilians at risk,' the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement.
Russia has sent a massive aid convoy to help residents there but it is still stuck at the border, not yet approved by Kiev because its proposed route lies through rebel-held territory.
Ukraine has accused Russia of arming and supporting the separatists, a charge Russia denies.
Ukraine and the West fear the massive aid convoy - over 200 trucks - will be used in some way to help the separatist militia.
Border guards have started the process of inspecting a convoy of Russian aid trucks and some have begun to clear customs, Ukrainian border guards said
Ukrainian authorities were accused of delaying the delivery of Russian aid to eastern Ukraine, but efforts are under way to allow the stalled convoy to proceed, the International Committee of the Red Cross said
A driver sets straight the flag of the Moscow region on one of the trucks of the aid convoy parked in a field about 17 miles from the Ukrainian border
Russia says the aid convoy of more than 200 trucks was sent to help alleviate the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the east
The International Committee of the Red Cross, an independent aid agency, has sent 35 staff to help smooth the way for the roughly 260 Russian trucks parked near Rostov.
This afternoon, some of the Russian trucks began the process of clearing customs, the Ukrainian border guard service said.
It had expected cargo inspections to begin late on Wednesday, before the convoy headed into rebel-held Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.
Luhansk has been largely cut off for weeks and is without water and regular supplies of electricity, which have hit mobile and landline phone connections.
RUSSIA DENIES CLOSING MCDONALD'S OUTLETS IN RETALIATION MOVE
Russia's health and safety agency has dismissed claims it has shut down four McDonald's restaurants in revenge for sanctions imposed on the country by the US.
Rospotrebnadzor has said there was no political motivation behind the decision to shut the fastfood chain's outlets and that it was merely a response to customer complaints over safety and quality.
It comes after Russia ramped up its scrutiny of the chain as the state food safety watchdog began unscheduled checks in several regions, a day after four branches in Moscow were shuttered by the same agency.
People sit on the terrace of a closed McDonald's restaurant in Moscow, the first to be opened in the Soviet Union in 1990
The action came after Moscow and the West imposed tit-for-tat sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine.
'There are complaints about the quality and safety of the products in fast food restaurant chain McDonald's,' said the regulatory agency, known in Russian as Rospotrebnadzor. It declined to comment on the scope of the planned checks.
The regulator said on Thursday it is already conducting checks at McDonald's outlets in the Ural mountains region of Sverdlovsk, the Volga region of Tatarstan, the central Voronezh region and the Moscow region.
It also plans checks in the republic of Bashkortostan and the southern Krasnodar region. Some of the checks are unscheduled.
Natalya Lukyantseva, an official of the regulator's branch in the Sverdlovsk region, said checks had been started because of complaints from customers.
A man tries peers through the locked doors of the McDonald's restaurant in Manezh Square, Moscow. Russian authorities shut four Moscow outlets due to alleged sanitary violations
'We are aware of what is going on. We have always been and are now open to any checks,' McDonald's Russian spokeswoman said. She could not comment on the reasons for the checks.
On Wednesday, the agency ordered the suspension of operations at four McDonald's restaurants in Moscow over what it said were 'numerous' sanitary law breaches.
The shuttered restaurants include one on Moscow's Pushkin Square, which McDonald's says is the busiest in its global network of restaurants.
For a generation of Russians who saw the first McDonald's open in the dying days of the Soviet Union in 1990, the restaurants were a symbol of American capitalism. For most Muscovites now, they are just a part of the urban landscape.
For a generation of Russians who saw the first McDonald's open in the dying days of the Soviet Union in 1990, the restaurants were a symbol of American capitalism
McDonald's operates 438 restaurants in Russia and considers the country one of its top seven major markets outside the United States and Canada, according to its 2013 annual report.
Last month, Rospotrebnadzor's branch in the Novgorod region opened a court case against McDonald's as a result of the June inspections of its restaurants.
It said at the time that McDonald's was deceiving consumers about the energy value of its burgers and about nutritional value of its desserts, and that its vegetable salad were contaminated with harmful bacteria.
'An ICRC team visited Luhansk to check the roads and establish contacts for the delivery of the convoy, having received security guarantees for the mission,' ICRC spokesman Ewan Watson said.
'Local authorities' in Luhansk, a city held by the separatists, have made preliminary arrangements to receive the Russian convoy, he said.
The ICRC then called for the immediate inspection of the trucks in order to proceed as soon as possible, he added.
'Last-minute decisions from the Ukrainian side have delayed the process,' Mr Watson said, declining to elaborate. 'We hope all issues can be resolved shortly.'
Donetsk, meanwhile, has come under daily shelling attacks from all sides. On Wednesday morning, rockets slammed into residential areas, including the Donetsk suburb of Makiivka. More rockets hit in the afternoon.
Ukrainian soldiers carry an injured woman on a stretcher at a hospital in the small eastern Ukrainian city of Shastia. At least 415,800 people have fled their homes due to fighting between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, the UN refugee agency said
A nurse provides medical care to a Ukrainian soldier in a hospital in Shastia. He was injured during an 'anti-terrorist operation'
A Ukrainian soldier smokes a cigarette while his colleagues clamber on top of a tank near the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk
A Ukrainian soldier walks next to a destroyed tank allegedly belonging to pro-Russian militants near Lugansk
A Ukrainian self-propelled gun sits in position near the Stanitsa Luganska village, in the Lugansk region
On guard: Ukrainian forces on patrol in the village of Stanitsa Luganska in the Lugansk region
The Donetsk mayor's office reported that nine people died and 13 were wounded in artillery attacks in two neighborhoods earlier in the day.
As the government sought to retake a major railroad and a highway that leads to Russia, nine troops were killed and 22 wounded overnight in Ilovaysk, a town east of Donetsk, said Lysenko, the government spokesman.
Fighting continued there Wednesday even though government forces had gained control of the town, he said.
The Kiev government is also pursuing diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict, which the United Nations says has killed more than 2,000 people and displaced over 340,000.
The fighting began in mid-April, a month after Russia annexed Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will host German Chancellor Angela Merkel this weekend in Kiev before meeting next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
He said this afternoon that he would call on the Russian President to take action for pro-Russian separatists to be withdrawn from Ukraine when the two men meet.
Though he did not mention Putin by name, Poroshenko was quoted by his website as saying that the Ukrainian side 'would call for the (rebel) fighters to be withdrawn from Ukraine.'
Ukrainian soldiers take on some food as they wait in a truck on the outskirts of Luhansk
A Ukrainian soldier with Ukrainian national trident tattoo on his arm smokes a cigarette on the outskirts of Luhansk. Forces have made significant in-roads in the area but fighting has cost the lives of more than 50 civilians
Ukrainian soldiers sit on a truck on the outskirts of Luhansk, Ukraine where they have made significant in-roads
As well as ground forces, Ukrainian military helicopters have been patrolling the part of the Luhansk region that has been recaptured from rebels
A Ukrainian serviceman rides on top of an armoured vehicle as he patrols an area in the Luhansk region
Poroshenko's pro-Western leadership accuses Russia of orchestrating separatist rebellions in Ukraine, in which more than 2,000 people have been killed, and of arming the rebels. Moscow denies this.
Saying he was going into the talks with the intention of trying to find a peaceful end to the conflict, he added: 'In order to have solid positions in peace negotiations, it is necessary to be strong, to have the unity of the people, a strong country, a strong army.
'We are capable of defending our sovereignty, out independence and our territorial integrity. Today we are fighting for the independence of Ukraine. We together will win for sure,' he said.
Next Tuesday's meeting will be the first between Poroshenko and Putin since a frosty encounter in June in Normandy, France, during World War Two D-Day commemorations.
The meeting has raised prospects of a breakthrough to end months of confrontation between Kiev and Moscow over the future direction of Ukraine whose leadership has set out on a road of integration into mainstream Europe to the dismay of its former Soviet ruler.
In Moscow on Wednesday, protesters scaled one of the city's famed Stalin-era skyscrapers and painted the Soviet star on its spire in the national colours of Ukraine. They also attached a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag to the top of the 176-meter (580-foot) building.
Elderly residents sit inside a makeshift bomb shelter in the basement of their house in the city of Makeyevka, in the Donetsk region
People carry their belongings in front of their damaged house in the city of Makeyevka amid fierce fighting in the region
Terrified residents have been taking refuge in makeshift underground shelters in a bid to escape the bomb blasts and fighting
A woman covers her face with her hand as she breaks down in tears near her house in the city of Makeyevka
A Russian military truck carries a MSTA-S self-propelled howitzer about 10 kilometers from the Russia-Ukrainian border control point at town Donetsk, Rostov-on-Don region, Russia
While Moscow police detained four suspects and charged them with vandalism, a crime punishable with up to three years in prison, Poroshenko welcomed the flag-hoisting over the skyscraper in a video message, calling it a 'symbolic' gesture.
He then urged Ukrainians all over the world to fly Ukrainian flags at their homes in celebration of the country's Independence Day holiday on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian Economy Minister Pavlo Sheremeta has tendered his resignation and voiced frustration at not being able to push ahead with much-needed economic reform.
After months of fighting in its eastern regions following the toppling of a government blighted by corruption and economic mismanagement, Ukraine's economy has contracted sharply, even with a multi-billion dollar financial lifeline from the International Monetary Fund.
Sheremeta had vowed to slash red tape and eliminate corrupt practices that have helped to virtually bankrupt Ukraine when he was appointed soon after the ousting of a Moscow-backed president in February.
But he has not managed to push substantive legislation through parliament.
Ukrainian Economy Minister Pavlo Sheremeta, left, has tendered his resignation and voiced frustration at not being able to push ahead with much-needed economic reform
In a sign of frustration at the lack of broad support for reform, Sheremeta said on his Facebook page that he no longer wanted to 'fight against yesterday's system'.
Sheremeta's offer to resign follows comments from Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk on Wednesday that voiced dissatisfaction with the speed and depths of reforms.
Parliament, which is still packed with many former supporters of ex-President Viktor Yanukovich, has managed to pass legislation on taxation and sanctions on Russia in recent weeks -- but only after being bullied by Yatseniuk who at one point also threatened to resign over the legislature's inaction.
The post of economy minister was the first political appointment for Sheremeta, a former economics academic.
'There are serious and solid reasons for this resignation ... It's a good example of how very talented, popular economic commentators, are not necessarily effective reformers,' Kiev-based political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said.
Sheremeta's resignation will have to be approved by parliament. This might be one of the last acts of the current parliament which is likely to be dissolved next week, paving the way for a new election in October.
PREPARATIONS UNDERWAY FOR UKRAINIAN INDEPENDENCE DAY
Hundreds of troops have been taking part in a series of practice drills ahead of Ukraine's Independence Day.
Rehearsals are underway with soldiers marching in the Independence Square in the country's capital, Kiev.
Ukrainian troops have been marching in Kiev as part of preparations for Independence Day
Military parades will take place in the city on Sunday August 24.
In recent days there has been that speculation Ukraine will hype up its military achievements ahead of the weekend.
Forces have since made in-roads into parts of rebel-held Luhansk.