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World

Pro-Russian Separatists Widen Their Attack In Eastern Ukraine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And let's go next to Ukraine where pro-Russian separatists have widened their attacks in the Eastern part of that country. According to U.S. officials, Russia is behind this. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk, and Soraya, is it getting to the point where Russia has simply invaded eastern Ukraine, that the evidence can show that?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Well, that's certainly what the Ukrainians are claiming. NATO officials, Polish officials, everyone is saying that there is evidence of this, that these Russian troops with armored vehicles - the most recent incursions being yesterday. This was the third one this week that included five armored personnel carriers, reportedly. Some of these tanks and troops have been seen in this Southeastern front that's developing here, south of where I am now in Donetsk.

INSKEEP: You know, when you say five armored personnel carriers; that's not a massive incursion. It almost sounds like Russia's trying to find out just how much it can get away with.

NELSON: Yes, what has been very covert in the past - 'cause certainly these reports of incursions are nothing new. They've been going on for weeks if not months. But what's different this time is that they seem to be a little more brazen about it even as Russia is denying officially from the Kremlin that they're doing this, and they say troops that have been captured, Russian troops that were captured this week, mistakenly crossed over, you know. They're not admitting to it. But there seems to be much more of an openness to this in the last few days than we've seen before.

INSKEEP: So you mentioned that NATO among others has said that this is happening, that Russia is crossing the border in more brazen ways. What is the Western response, if any?

NELSON: Chancellor Angela Merkel called President Vladimir Putin last night and demanded an explanation for what happened. She urged the president to take more control of his borders. The U.S. is calling this a stealth invasion and certainly the Ukrainians have been very condemning of this action. They say this is - amounts to an invasion of their country.

INSKEEP: Is the West doing anything, though?

NELSON: Not at the moment. Obviously there's been some discussion about more sanctions, but there is more immediacy here. Certainly Ukrainians are hoping that NATO - when the alliance meets in Wales next month, that they'll come up with some sort of concrete plan or response because the concern is that the pro-Russian separatists and their Russian allies here are trying to take the Southeastern stretch here.

They've already entered a town called Novoazovsk. They apparently have taken over that town. These are the reports we're getting this morning after heavy fighting for the past three days. And their goal seems to be the city of Mariupol, which is a port city here. And if they get that as well, then they basically have created a land link to Crimea which of course is in Russian hands right now and also a new supply route for this rebel-held city here of Donetsk.

INSKEEP: And what is that situation like in that city where you are?

NELSON: The shelling resumed. There was sort of a lull, it seemed, earlier in the day yesterday. The shelling resumed late in the afternoon and went overnight. We still heard a fair amount of booms this morning. One place that was struck was not very far from here. It was a cultural center where rebels were said to be staying or having an office there. And a car that was moving by the area caught fire, and three people were killed in that fire yesterday.

INSKEEP: Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Donetsk, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.