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5 troops, 2 civilians killed in eastern Ukraine; fierce battles in Luhansk and near Donetsk

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KIEV, Ukraine — Five troops were killed and two civilians died in the past 24 hours in rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine as government troops pressed to recapture more territory from pro-Russian separatists.

Ukrainian troops have made significant advances into rebel-held territory this week in a conflict that has already claimed more than 2,000 lives and forced over 340,000 people to flee their homes. Ukraine celebrates Independence Day on Sunday and reports are rife that the government is aiming to achieve a breakthrough by that date.

Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security Council, told reporters Thursday that government troops were still fighting separatists in and around Ilovaysk, a town near the rebel-held city of Donetsk, even though he said Ilovaysk was under government control.

At least two people were killed and an unspecified number wounded Thursday in an artillery strike on a suburb of Donetsk, the mayor's office said. Once home to 1 million, the largest city still held by the rebels has seen one-third of its population flee. Over 50 people and troops were killed Wednesday in shelling and fighting in the Donetsk region.

Fierce fighting also continued in Luhansk, a rebel stronghold 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Russian border, Lysenko said. The city has been under siege for 19 days, lacking basic amenities like running water or electricity.

PHOTO: Ukrainian soldiers muster at a point close to Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014.  Ukrainian troops make a significant push into rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, claiming control over a large part of Luhansk and encircling the largest rebel-held city, Donetsk, in fighting that has left at least 43 dead. (AP Photo/Petro Zadorozhnyy)
Ukrainian soldiers muster at a point close to Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014. Ukrainian troops make a significant push into rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, claiming control over a large part of Luhansk and encircling the largest rebel-held city, Donetsk, in fighting that has left at least 43 dead. (AP Photo/Petro Zadorozhnyy)

Ukraine has accused Russia of arming and supporting the separatists since fighting began in mid-April, a charge Russia has always denied. AP journalists have seen a significant number of Russian fighters among the rebels, but Moscow says they are individuals who chose to go fight on their own.

Ukrainian troops claimed Thursday to have seized two Russian infantry vehicles outside of Luhansk. Photos provided by the defense ministry showed one infantry vehicle and an array of Russian civilian and army IDs.

Moscow denied the reports. A spokesman for Russia's defense ministry told Russian news agencies that the armored personal carrier in the photos did not belong to Russia and the kind of documents found in the vehicle had not been used for five years.

"This is already the hundredth piece of 'evidence' among the daily 'revelations' of a Russian presence on Ukrainian territory," Interfax quoted spokesman Igor Konashenkov as saying.


Laura Mills contributed to this report from Moscow.

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PHOTO: Ukrainian soldiers gather at a point close to Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014.  Ukrainian troops made a significant push into rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, claiming control over a large part of Luhansk and encircling the largest rebel-held city, Donetsk, in fighting that has left at least 43 dead. (AP Photo/Petro Zadorozhnyy)
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