DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — Chechnya's Moscow-backed leader said Wednesday that he hasn't sent any troops to fight alongside pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine, but added that some Chechens may have gone there on their own.
The issue is significant because fighting in eastern Ukraine between government troops and pro-Russia rebels has taken on a new ferocity this week with scores killed around the major city of Donetsk. Ukrainian border guards have also reported at least one gunbattle as they blocked groups of armed men trying to cross into Ukraine from Russia.
In a statement posted on his Instagram, Ramzan Kadyrov said two-thirds of the three million Chechens live outside the province in Russia's North Caucasus mountains, so he "can't and mustn't know where each of them goes."
"If someone saw a Chechen in the zone of conflict, he's there on his own," he said.
Fighters who looked like Caucasus residents were seen among pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine, where they have seized government buildings and fought Ukrainian forces. Ukraine and the West have accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest, but it has denied the claim.
Kadyrov's forces, known for their warrior spirit and deadly efficiency, helped Russia win a quick victory in a 2008 war with neighboring Georgia. The 37-year old-leader has vowed an unswerving fealty to Russian President Vladimir Putin and has hailed Putin's policy in Ukraine.
In the most furious battle yet, rebels in Donetsk tried to take control of its airport Monday but were repelled by Ukrainian forces using combat jets and helicopter gunships. Dozens of men were killed and some morgues were overflowing Tuesday. Some insurgent leaders said up to 100 fighters may have been killed.
The city remained tense Wednesday, with Ukrainian fighter jets flying overhead. Some gunshots were heard.
In Slovyansk, a city 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Donetsk which that has seen constant clashes over the past few weeks, residential areas came under mortar shelling Wednesday from government forces. A school was badly damaged and other buildings were hit. Residents told The Associated Press that several people were wounded.
Kadyrov, a former rebel who fought Russian forces in the first of two devastating separatist wars, switched sides during the second campaign when his father became the region's pro-Russia leader. Following his father's death in a rebel bombing, Kadyrov rebuilt the region relying on generous Kremlin funding and squelched the rebel resistance with his ruthless paramilitary forces, which have been blamed for extrajudicial killings, torture and other abuses.
Putin praised Kadyrov last week after he negotiated the release of two Russian journalists arrested by Ukrainian forces and accused of assisting the rebels in the east, earning Putin's praise. The Chechen leader has not said how he got the journalists freed, but has directed threats at the Ukrainian authorities.
"If the Ukrainian authorities want so much to see 'Chechen units' in Donetsk, why go to Donetsk if there is a good highway to Kiev?" he said in Wednesday's statement.
However, he added that he fully supports Putin's policy to help restore peace in Ukraine.
Putin has denied Ukraine's allegations that Russia has sent its special forces to foment the mutiny in the east. On Tuesday, Russia's Federal Security Service rejected the Ukrainian claim that a convoy of vehicles loaded with weapons attempted to break through the border and engaged in a gunbattle with the Ukrainian border guards.
Russia, which annexed Crimea in March, has ignored the requests of eastern insurgents to join Russia following controversial independence referendums. The Kremlin also welcomed Ukraine's presidential election Sunday and said it was ready to work with the winner, billionaire candy magnate Petro Poroshenko, in an apparent bid to de-escalate the worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War and avoid a new round of Western sanctions.
"It's necessary to use the situation after the election to immediately end using the military and launch a broad all-Ukrainian dialogue involving all regions and political forces in order to start a constitutional reform," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday.
Russia has supported a plan proposed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that calls for ending hostilities and launching a political dialogue. It has sought to cast the rebels' actions as a response to the heavy-handed use of force by the central government.
Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said Ukrainian military action in the east was "pushing the situation into a deadlock, making it increasingly difficult to organize a dialogue."
He said the Kremlin hadn't received a letter from the insurgents' leaders asking Russia for assistance.
Ushakov said Putin would visit Paris on June 5, where he would meet with French President Francois Hollande and then travel to Normandy the next day for the70th anniversary of the allied landing in Normandy. It will be Putin's first meeting with President Barack Obama and other Western leaders since the start of Ukraine's crisis.
Ushakov said there are no plans for any formal meetings but Putin would likely have informal contacts with the other leaders.
Alexander Zemlianichenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.