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article imageMonitors lose second drone in a week over rebel Ukraine

By Dmitry Zaks (AFP)     Jun 3, 2016 in World

Foreign monitors observing Ukraine's bloody eastern separatist conflict said on Friday they had lost their second surveillance drone over pro-Russian territory in a week.

The disclosure coincides with a new upsurge in fighting in a 25-month war that has tattered the West's ties with Moscow and put on edge eastern European nations that were once part of the Soviet Union's domain.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said the drone downed on Friday was flying at an altitude of 9,000 feet (2,740 metres) when it "lost all communication and experienced simultaneous system failures".

Its Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) said evidence "strongly suggests" the drone was hit from a rebel position about 30 kilometres (20 miles) northeast of the insurgents' de facto capital of Donetsk.

The monitoring team had another surveillance vehicle shot down shortly after it had spotted a powerful surface-to-air missile system in a separatist region 35 kilometres northeast of Donetsk on May 27.

"The missile that the SMM's UAV recorded, the kind of weapon unavailable to separatists without Russian support, is even more evidence of direct Russian involvement in the conflict," the US mission to the pan-European security body said in a statement.

OSCE observers check a column of anti-tank guns being withdrawn by pro-Russian separatists from Done...
OSCE observers check a column of anti-tank guns being withdrawn by pro-Russian separatists from Donetsk, on October 28, 2015
Aleksey Filippov, AFP/File

An OSCE source in Kiev said the number of drones at its disposal remained an operational secret but that the group was working on "restoring their capacity".

The United Nations on Friday said 9,371 people have died since a revolt across parts of the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine erupted against the pro-Western government in Kiev in April 2014.

Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of stirring up the unrest and sending soldiers and equipment across parts of the frontier currently under rebel control.

Moscow denies the charges and accuses Washington of fomenting three months of bloody protests that brought down Ukraine's Russian-backed administration in February 2014.

- 'Zero progress' -

The OSCE deploys unarmed monitors and organises periodic talks between Moscow and Kiev envoys aimed at ending one of Europe's bloodiest crises since the 1990s Balkans wars.

But a sharp May escalation that claimed the lives of 26 Ukrainian soldiers and an undisclosed number of rebels has dampened hopes of a quick end to the bloodshed.

An armed pro-Russian separatist stands in front of the destroyed Donetsk International Airport  on J...
An armed pro-Russian separatist stands in front of the destroyed Donetsk International Airport, on June 1, 2016
Aleksey Filippov, AFP

"Unfortunately, we have achieved zero progress (in negotiations) this year," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told reporters.

The new wave of violence in the EU's backyard comes with some members of the bloc calling for an easing of sanctions it imposed on Russia for the Kremlin's March 2014 annexation of Crimea and alleged support of the insurgents' campaign.

EU leaders will meet in Brussels to decide what to do by the end of the month.

Some lobby groups in nations such as Italy and France believe that a gradual restoration of economic ties will see Russia lift the ban it imposed in reprisal on Western food imports in 2014.

The decision has hurt European farmers but also helped drive up consumer prices in Russia itself.

Others, however, argue that the West cannot bend to Russian President Vladimir Putin's increasingly assertive foreign policy and seeming effort to dominate former Soviet states.

"Ukraine's security, stability, sovereignty and territorial integrity continue to be threatened by Russia's direct support for separatists in eastern Ukraine," a senior Western diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.

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