DONETSK, Ukraine — Pro-Russian separatists ambushed a convoy of Ukrainian troops Tuesday in the troubled eastern part of the country, as Germany’s foreign minister sought to jump-start talks between the Kiev government and the separatists as part of a European bid to resolve the crisis.
The German delegation’s arrival signaled that efforts to find a diplomatic solution may be gaining pace amid concerns that the region could irrevocably slip out of the control of the Ukrainian government or descend further into violence.
But there was renewed fighting Tuesday, with pro-Russian rebels killing seven Ukrainian troops and wounding eight others in an attack around 1 p.m. local time about 12 miles outside the city of Kramatorsk. About 30 militants armed with automatic weapons and grenade launchers struck a convoy carrying paratroopers as it was approaching a bridge near the village of Oktyabrsk, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on its Web site.
A grenade struck one armored personnel carrier’s engine, the ministry said, and rebels opened fire as Ukrainian troops tried to move the crippled vehicle out of the way. Six soldiers were killed in the ambush, and one later died of his injuries, local media reported.
The attack occurred a day after separatists used the results of Sunday’s snap elections to herald the birth of two new pro-Russian republics and demand that Ukrainian security forces leave their “sovereign” territory.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier flew to Kiev after a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday to try to find a negotiated solution to the worst crisis between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.
Yet statements by the foreign ministries in Kiev and Moscow suggested that the protagonists in the conflict were still talking past each other.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused the interim Ukrainian government of escalating the conflict and called on Kiev to withdraw its troops and cease its “punitive actions” as part of a diplomatic solution worked out with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In turn, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said Russia’s view of the OSCE’s “road map” was “far from reality, biased and one-sided” and accused Moscow of sponsoring the separatists in an effort to destabilize Ukraine. The spokesman said Kiev was following the OSCE plan by scheduling an “all-Ukrainian roundtable” Wednesday to discuss national unity. It was not clear who would be sitting at any negotiating table, however.
In Donetsk, the Kiev-appointed regional governor, Serhiy Taruta, said the “Donetsk People’s Republic” has no political or legal standing. But Taruta also told reporters that the concerns of the region’s people need to be addressed. He advocates a nationwide referendum June 15, at the same time as the second round of a presidential election, on a decentralization of political power that would give regions more say in their affairs, including a greater share of the taxes they levy and the power to grant Russian the status of second official language.
Taruta said he is in regular contact with the separatists, mainly over the issue of freeing hostages. But he said the makeup of the separatist negotiating team keeps changing because of internal power struggles, with no clear center of decision-making power.
“The problem is our opponents,” he said. “They don’t have one single representative who has the rights and responsibility to implement any agreements.”
Separatist leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk were adamant that the Ukrainian presidential and mayoral elections scheduled for May 25 would not take place in their regions.
But Taruta said preparations were continuing, adding that police have been asked to provide adequate security for the process.
Polls have indicated that most residents of eastern Ukraine would prefer to remain part of the country.
Still, many are deeply unhappy with the Western-leaning government in Kiev. They consider it illegal and in league with ultranationalist groups, and some worry that the large population of Russian speakers in the east will be treated as second-class citizens. Their fears have been magnified by aggressive Russian propaganda.
Anthony Faiola in Berlin and Daniela Deane in London contributed to this report.