Ukraine monitor warns of 'massive upsurge in violence'

Kiev (AFP) - A top monitor for the conflict in Ukraine warned Thursday that a "massive upsurge in violence" has pushed fighting between Kiev's forces and pro-Russian rebels to levels not seen in months.

The statement by Alexander Hug of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) came a day after the body hailed progress toward a New Year's truce agreement that must still be approved by the insurgents.

Ukrainian forces have lost at least eight soldiers since Sunday in the conflict that has simmered in the European Union's backyard since 2014.

The eastern separatists have rarely disclosed their own losses during clashes that have claimed nearly 10,000 lives according to the UN.

Hug said his organisation had recorded a 75 percent increase in the number of ceasefire violations in recent weeks.

The deputy chief of the OSCE's Special Monitoring Mission for Ukraine added that the use of heavy weapons banned by a tattered February 2015 peace agreement -- that neither side has actually followed -- had risen by 300 percent.

"Behind these dry facts lies a massive upsurge in violence," Hug told reporters.

The stark words came one day after the OSCE helped mediate talks between representatives from Russia and Ukraine on ways to stop shelling for at least the holiday season.

Russia denies playing a part in the conflict and calls its troops caught or captured in the war zone volunteers.

But its seat at the negotiating table underscores the sway it holds over the insurgents from the mostly Russian-speaking industrial regions of Lugansk and Donetsk.

- New holidays truce? -

A spokeswoman for Ukraine's representative to Wednesday's meeting said the three sides had agreed to call for a new holiday truce that would reflect one negotiated a year ago.

Her comment was echoed by a top Ukranian army spokesman on Thursday.

"The armed forces of Ukraine are ready to implement the president's peace plan," Oleksandr Motuzyanyk told Ukraine's 112 television channel.

The insurgency's representatives were not present at the meeting and issued no immediate comment.

But the OSCE's negotiator overseeing the periodic trilateral meetings voiced hope that peace would soon come to the most devastated parts of the former Soviet republic in the next few days.

We "reaffirm our commitment to a comprehensive, sustainable and unlimited ceasefire, starting at midnight on 24 December 2016 (Kiev time)," Martin Sajdik said in a statement issued late Wednesday.

Previous such calls have been generally accepted by the rebels because they included Russia's involvement.

No Ukrainian troops were reported killed on Thursday.

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