Ukraine says battles rage in heart of rebel-held Lugansk

Max Delany with Dimitar Dilkoff in Makiyivka
People sit inside a makeshift bomb shelter in the town of Makiyivka on August 19, 2014
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People sit inside a makeshift bomb shelter in the town of Makiyivka on August 19, 2014 (AFP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoff)

Kiev (AFP) - Ukraine said Tuesday fighting had erupted in the heart of major rebel stronghold Lugansk, as the bodies of 17 civilians fleeing the city were recovered from wreckage of their destroyed convoy.

As government forces cut deeper into insurgent territory, Kiev and Moscow announced that Presidents Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko will hold their first face-to-face talks in months next week with pressure piling on to end four months of brutal fighting.

Kiev's military claimed for the first time that street battles with pro-Russian insurgents were raging in the centre of second-largest insurgent hub Lugansk after one outlying district was "liberated".

If confirmed, any advance by Ukraine's army into Lugansk, which has endured brutal shelling and weeks without running water or electricity, would be a major breakthrough for Kiev in the bloody conflict that has claimed over 2,100 lives since April.

Adding to this toll, the military said it had recovered the bodies of 17 civilians burned alive when a convoy evacuating them from Lugansk was hit by a rebel mortar strike on Monday.

Pro-Kremlin insurgents have denied the allegations, which could not be independently verified.

A fresh push to ease tensions between Russia and Ukraine was underway after weekend talks between the top diplomats from both countries failed to make any breakthrough.

Kiev has claimed the Kremlin is ramping up weapon supplies in a bid to stave off defeat for the rebels and could be readying to invade as a last throw of the dice, allegations rejected by Moscow.

Moscow and Kiev announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko will hold their first face-to-face talks in almost three months at a meeting in Minsk with top EU officials on August 26.

The encounter will come three days after a key visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Kiev for crisis talks with Ukraine's leadership.

Valeriy Chalyi, a senior official in Ukraine's presidency, expressed cautious optimism that a "precise diplomatic roadmap" was taking shape that could help steer a path towards peace.

"We are moving from telephone diplomacy to direct interaction and it will be a very important week for the future prospects," he said.

Two senior UN officials -- Under-Secretary General Jeffrey Feltman and humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos -- are also set to travel to Kiev later this week.

- No peace, no water -

In the industrial eastern region, deadly shelling also rained down around the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk as government troops tightened their grip on rebels clinging on.

An AFP photographer in the adjoining city of Makiyivka saw the bodies of one woman and two men killed by shelling sprawled in the streets.

Smoke could also be seen billowing from the nearby town of Yasynuvata, where Kiev said its troops were conducting a "mopping-up" operation.

Shelling rang out around Donetsk, which had a pre-war population of one million, as locals again queued for water after fighting cut supplies over the weekend.

Poroshenko said Monday that Ukraine was readjusting its military strategy following fresh rebel claims they were receiving troop reinforcements from neighbouring Russia to prop up their struggling insurgency, which has forced more than 285,000 people to flee.

He said government forces were "regrouping" as they sought to continue the offensive.

A military spokesman said one soldier was killed and 28 injured over the past 24 hours.

- Aid delayed -

A controversial Russian aid convoy was meanwhile still stuck waiting to be checked near Ukraine's restive border as haggling over whether it could cross dragged on.

Red Cross representative Laurent Corbaz headed to Moscow Tuesday to discuss with Russian officials the delivery of humanitarian aid to east Ukraine.

The Red Cross -- which is meant to oversee the delivery of the cargo -- says it has not yet received security guarantees on how it will cross rebel territory.

"We have no date, no hour" for when the convoy may go to the Ukrainian side, Paul Picard, a monitor for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) at the border, told journalists.

Kiev and the West fear the shipment is a ploy to bolster the rebellion or provide a pretext for Russia to invade, allegations dismissed by Moscow.