KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Two wounded Russian soldiers captured while fighting in war-torn eastern Ukraine have been transferred to a hospital in Kiev, Ukrainian officials said Monday as Moscow once again firmly denied any involvement in the fighting.
The Russians were wounded and taken prisoner Saturday near the front line town of Shchastia in the separatist Luhansk region, Ukrainian officials reported.
Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have been fighting government troops for a year in a conflict that has killed over 6,100 people but Russia has denied supplying them either with weaponry or troops. When several Russian soldiers were captured on Ukrainian territory last summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin said they had simply got lost.
Asked about the new reports Monday, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov again denied any Russian involvement in Ukraine's war.
"We have said repeatedly that there are no Russian troops in Donbass," Peskov said, referring to eastern Ukraine.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Gen.-Maj. Igor Konashenkov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying the two were not current Russian soldiers but former ones, while the separatist mouthpiece Luhansk Information Center claimed the two were policemen from Luhansk, not Russian soldiers.
Viktor Muzhenko, chairman of the Ukrainian General Staff, told reporters the two men were taken to Kiev, the capital, where they are receiving treatment after one was wounded in the shoulder and the other in the right leg. They were caught while on a reconnaissance mission around a strategic power station.
Another Ukrainian military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, told reporters that the men's capture will no longer allow Russia to deny its military presence in Ukraine.
"They were there on a mission and they were killing our people," he said Monday.
A video posted by a member of parliament showed one man who said he was a Russian Army sergeant. The young man lying in a hospital bed introduced himself as Sgt. Alexander Alexandrov of the Russian special forces from the Volga River city of Togliatti. He said he was operating in a group of 14 men based since March 6 in the rebel stronghold of Luhansk.
He and his comrades had been rotating in and out of the area around Shchastia every four to five days.
One wounded soldier was taken prisoner with his rifle, while the other was lying in the ditch with no weapons, apparently abandoned, according to Viktor Nikolyuk, commander of the 92nd Brigade, which took the Russians captive.
Muzhenko said separatists opened fire when Ukrainian troops were retreating, carrying the wounded Russian soldiers on their shoulders. Muzhenko said the rebels who fired knew that their mates were there.
The conflict has left large parts of Ukraine's industrial heartlands in ruins. A cease-fire brokered in February has made the fighting less intense but skirmishes are still a daily occurrence. Two Ukrainian troops were killed Sunday in fighting, Lysenko said, and two volunteers died when their car hit a land mine in the Luhansk region.
Grigory Maksimets, a medic of the pro-Kiev volunteer Aidar battalion, told The Associated Press that he attended to the men when they were delivered late Saturday to his hospital in Shchastia, a town less than 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Luhansk and home to the power station.
The men introduced themselves as Russian soldiers and were worried that the battalion's doctors wanted to take their organs for sale, he added.
"They asked not to be sedated because they were afraid we would take their organs," Maksimets told the AP, adding their Russian commanders had warned them about this.
Valentina Melnikova, head of the Union of Soldier Mothers' Committee, said her group has plenty of evidence showing that Russian soldiers have been sent to Ukraine.
"There are officers and soldiers there," she told the AP on Monday. "Indeed, they have no identities, no documents and no uniforms, they have no ranks and so on, but all this is a crime on the part of the Russian state. By sending out officers and soldiers of the armed forces with that status, our state has no means to protect them."
Speaking to reporters in Moscow, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said she welcomed the Ukrainian government's assurances that the soldiers "are being well taken care of" and that officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross would be allowed to visit them.
It wasn't clear if she discussed the issue with Russian officials during her talks in Moscow.
Vladimir Isachenkov and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.