Ukraine says 2 soldiers killed in east amid Russia tensions

KYIV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian military said Friday two soldiers were killed and another was wounded under fire from Russia-backed separatist rebels in the country’s east, where hostilities have increased sharply in recent months.

According to Ukraine’s military, 36 soldiers have been killed in the east this year. Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists have been fighting in eastern Ukraine since 2014. More than 14,000 people have died in the conflict and efforts to negotiate a political settlement have stalled.

Russia, which claims it has no military presence in eastern Ukraine, fueled new tensions this year by massing troops and conducting large-scale military exercises near its border with Ukraine. The Russian troop buildup raised alarms in the West.

On Thursday, foreign ministers from Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg visited the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine in a show of support and on Friday met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.

“Dialogue is a way forward because nobody has any interest to see … the situation escalating in Donbas. And the Benelux and the EU are convinced that dialogue are the way to a solution and conflict resolution,” Sophie Wilmes, Belgium’s deputy prime minister, told a news conference after the meeting with Kuleba.

Zelenskyy, according to a statement released by his office, thanked the foreign ministers for starting their visit to Ukraine with a trip to the east.

“I think it’s important not to know what is happening there in words, but to see everything with your own eyes. I know that you were in the town of Shchastya in the Luhansk region. You saw for yourself our attitude towards Donbas. We are investing in infrastructure,” Zelenskyy was quoted as saying.

The foreign ministers’ meeting with Zelenskyy comes a day after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the Ukraine president in Kyiv and reaffirmed Washington’s support for Ukraine in the wake of the heightened tensions with Russia.

Both Zelenskyy and Blinken noted that while Russia has pulled back some of its forces from the border with Ukraine, a significant number of troops and equipment is still there, posing a threat.