Ukraine says 24 soldiers killed in country’s east this year

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Tuesday that 24 of the country’s soldiers have been killed so far this year in eastern regions where cease-fire violations have escalated in recent weeks.

The conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine erupted shortly after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. More than 14,000 people have died in the fighting.

In a call Tuesday with Canadian Prime Minister Canada Justin Trudeau, Zelenskiy pointed to his country’s mounting losses from cease-fire violations in the east and stressed the need to increase international pressure on Russia to prevent further escalation.

Zelenskiy said that since the latest cease-fire was signed last July, Ukraine has lost 28 servicemen in the east, including 24 so far this year.

Ukraine’s military said earlier in the day that two of its soldiers were killed in the last 24 hours.

Officials in Kyiv and the West expressed concerns over reports of a troop buildup along Russia’s borders with Ukraine. Last week, Zelenskiy accused Russia of “muscle-flexing in the form of military exercises and possible provocations along the border.”

Russia has rejected the accusations.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted Monday that Russia could deploy its forces wherever it deems necessary on its territory, adding that the troops’ movements “shouldn’t cause the slightest concern” and that Russia doesn’t pose a threat “to any country in the world, including Ukraine.”

But Zelenskiy, in a phone conversation with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson late Monday, argued that “Russia’s recent actions pose a serious challenge to the security of Ukraine, NATO member states and the whole of Europe,” according to a readout of the call released by Kyiv.

A readout from Johnson’s office said the two leaders discussed the U.K.’s “significant concerns about the recent Russian military activity on Ukraine’s border and in illegally-annexed Crimea.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he called Zelenskiy on Tuesday to express the bloc’s “serious concerns” about Russia’s military activities.

“NATO firmly supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We remain committed to our close partnership,” Stoltenberg tweeted.

Zelenskiy, in turn, stressed the importance of Ukraine joining a program for prospective NATO members, saying that participating in the alliance’s Membership Action Plan program could be “a real signal for Russia.”

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