KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — At least six Ukrainian troops have been killed in more than two days of fighting as separatists intensified shelling of government positions ahead of peace talks expected in the coming week, Ukrainian military officials said Friday.
The press office for military operations in eastern Ukraine said army outposts had been targeted 50 times by small arms fire, mortars and rockets over the past day. Separatists accused the Ukrainian army of likewise mounting dozens of rocket attacks throughout Thursday and into Friday.
The intensification in hostilities comes one month after a renewed truce led to a marked lull in the fighting that originally broke out in the spring.
Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Friday that four soldiers died in fighting over the previous day. Later, the National Guard said in a statement that two of its servicemen were killed during an armed clash Friday outside the separatist-held city of Luhansk.
An AP reporter heard rockets being fired Thursday evening into the separatist stronghold of Donetsk — an indication that government forces are breaching the cease-fire. Separatist authorities in Donetsk said Friday that a hospital building was struck by artillery fire earlier in the week, but that there were no casualties.
Leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France are expected to meet Thursday in Kazakhstan to consider solutions to the conflict. The talks, not yet confirmed, will be seen as an attempt by Moscow to seek a softening of EU sanctions imposed last year in response to its annexation of Crimea and its perceived material support of separatist forces in Ukraine.
In a signal of possible softening of positions in Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Thursday that there are "some limited positive signs on the Russian side."
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said on his Twitter account Friday that he will meet with his counterparts from Russia, Germany and France for talks in Berlin on Monday.
On the ground in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions, there have been indications of mounting tensions in recent days.
Ukrainian military press spokesmen have reported an uptick in shelling by separatists and the resumption in the use of Grad and Uragan multiple rocket launchers. At least four villages were hit by Grad rockets Thursday, officials said.
An AP reporter heard outgoing mortars being fired Friday morning from a rebel-controlled area situated around one kilometer (half a mile) from an orphanage that was supposed to be receiving a visit from the Donetsk separatist leader, until it was canceled.
Associated Press reporter Mstyslav Chernov in Donetsk, Ukraine contributed to this report.