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updated: 7/21/2014 12:10 PM

Ukraine troops attack rebel strongholds 'across all fronts'

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Bloomberg News

Ukraine targeted pro-Russian separatists who've fallen back to two of the nation's biggest eastern cities, stepping up a four-month military offensive in the wake of last week's Malaysia Air plane disaster.

Government troops seized towns in the Donbas region and took over part of Donetsk, according to a Defense Ministry statement today on Facebook. The army has begun an "advance across all fronts," Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told reporters.

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"The time has come when Russia must take a final decision -- to really support Donbas's Russians or abandon them forever," rebel commander Igor Strelkov said on his page on Russian-language social media website Vkontakte.

After pushing them out of bases in the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, Ukraine's government is intensifying its assault on the separatists, whose appeals for Russian intervention haven't been met. The heightened military campaign comes days after a missile downed flight MH17 in the Donetsk region, killing all 298 people on board.

Nations including the U.S and the U.K. say the rebels probably fired the missile. Russian President Vladimir Putin says Ukraine is to blame because it ended a cease-fire with the rebels last month. Putin will tomorrow host a meeting to discuss "matters related to ensuring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation," the Kremlin said today in an e-mailed statement.

'Enormous' Advantage

While the insurgents repelled tanks near Donetsk, Ukraine's forces have an "enormous" technical advantage, according to Borodai, who said he's seeking a resumption of cease-fire talks. The army deployed warplanes and fired Grad missiles in the outskirts of the city of 1 million, he said.

At least four civilians were killed and two wounded during today's fighting, the Donetsk regional governor's office said on its website. DTEK, the energy company owned by Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, said in a statement that drinking-water reserves are sufficient for only five days, even if water supplies are significantly restricted.

"If you have the opportunity to leave the city, don't be afraid to do so," said Donetsk Governor Serhiy Taruta, who was appointed by the government in Kiev. "The state guarantees that everyone will be cared for."

Weapons Seized

Government troops today took control of two cities in the Donetsk region and a city and a village in the Luhansk region, Andriy Lysenko, the spokesman for Defense Ministry, told reporters in Kiev. Donbas is made up of the two regions, which border Russia to the east.

"Government troops, acting fast, detained a lot of militants as well as weapons made in Russia," Lysenko said. Russia denies Ukrainian and U.S. allegations that its supplying arms to the separatists.

Gunfire was heard in "many parts" of Donetsk this morning and there was shelling near the airport, the city council said on its website, without providing details of casualties. At 1 p.m. local time, plumes of thick black smoke could be seen rising from the outskirts.

"The Ukrainians have just bombed the market near the main train station and also hit a residential building," said Viktor Nechaevsky, who works at the press service of the Donetsk People's Republic. "There are victims."

--With assistance from Olga Tanas in Moscow and Daryna Krasnolutska in Kiev.

To contact the reporters on this story: Aliaksandr Kudrytski in Minsk, Belarus at akudrytskibloomberg.net; Volodymyr Verbyany in Kiev at vverbyany1bloomberg.net To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenzbloomberg.net Andrew Langley, Andrea Dudik

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