Tag Archives: Ground

Future ground role for US military advisors in Iraq likely: Dempsey

US military advisors are likely to take a more direct role in the ground campaign against jihadists in Iraq once Iraqi forces are ready to go on the offensive, the top US officer said in comments aired Sunday.

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had not yet encountered a situation where US air strikes would be more effective if US troops were on the ground spotting targets.

But he said that when Iraqi forces are ready to take the offensive against the Islamic State jihadists who have overrun swaths of territory in northern and western Iraq, as well as in Syria, that would likely change.

“Mosul will likely be the decisive battle in the ground campaign at some point in the future,” Dempsey said in an interview with ABC’s “This Week,” referring to the northern Iraqi city seized by IS militants in June.

“My instinct at this point is that will require a different kind of advising and assisting because of the complexity of that fight,” he said.

Dempsey caused a stir last month when he told lawmakers that if he believed US military advisors should accompany Iraqi troops on the ground against IS fighters, he would recommend that to President Barack Obama.

Obama has insisted there would be no US boots on the ground.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice said on a separate Sunday talk show that US commanders have not asked to put US combat forces into Iraq and she did not anticipate such a request.

“We are not going to be in a ground war again in Iraq,” Rice said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“It’s not what is required by the circumstances that we face and even if one were to take that step, which the president has made clear we are not going to do, it wouldn’t be sustainable.”

Former defense secretary Leon Panetta, however, said Obama “has to be open to whatever recommendations are made in order to ensure that we are effective in going after ISIS.”

Speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Panetta said boots on the ground were needed to stop the Islamic State group, which is also known as ISIL or ISIS.

“It doesn’t have to be American boots on the ground, but you have got to have people on the ground who can identify targets and who can help us develop the kind of effective air strikes that are going to be needed if we’re going to be able to undermine, destroy this vicious enemy that we’re dealing with.”

The Iraqi military’s weak performance, meanwhile, is another lure for more direct US military involvement.

Dempsey revealed that US Apache attack helicopters had to be called in recently to repel an IS attack on Iraqi forces 20 to 25 kilometers (12 to 15 miles) from the Baghdad airport.

“Had they overrun the Iraqi unit, it was a straight shot to the airport, so we’re not going to allow that to happen. We need that airport,” he said.

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ISIS advances in Kobane as Turkey rejects solo ground action

Advancing Islamic State fighters seized a third of the Syrian border town of Kobane Thursday despite US-led air strikes, as Turkey rejected sending troops in against the jihadists on its own.

In fighting that killed dozens, calls grew for ground action to support Kobane’s beleaguered Kurdish defenders.

But after talks with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara could not be expected to act alone.

“It’s not realistic to expect that Turkey will lead a ground operation on its own,” he said.

Ankara is under pressure over its inaction, and protests in Kurdish areas of Turkey have sparked clashes that claimed at least 23 lives and forced authorities to impose a curfew in six provinces.

Kobane, where Kurdish militia are still holding out after a three-week siege by the jihadists, has become a crucial battleground in the fight against IS.

With the global media gathered just across the border in Turkey, its conquest would be a highly visible symbolic victory for the extremists.

Fresh air strikes
The US-led coalition launched a fresh air strike on eastern Kobane on Thursday evening, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Hours earlier, the US military said five strikes were carried out in Kobane Wednesday and Thursday, hitting two IS combat units, destroying a support building and two vehicles, and damaging a training camp.

“Indications are that Kurdish militia there continue to control most of the city and are holding out against ISIL,” it said, using an alternative acronym for IS.

But a Kobane refugee who spoke to AFP in Turkey said “air strikes are not helpful alone. We need heavy weaponry and tanks to support a ground operation.”

Street battles have been raging since the jihadists breached Kobane’s defences earlier this week.

IS fighters pulled out of some areas Wednesday but have since renewed their offensive and seized more ground, the Britain-based Observatory said.

“Despite fierce resistance from the Kurdish forces, IS advanced during the night and controls more than a third of Kobane,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Fierce clashes
Eleven IS fighters were killed and four captured in Kobane Thursday, the Observatory said.

Clashes were ongoing in northeastern Kobane, where several official buildings and the Kurdish command are based, and were particularly fierce in the town’s southwest, it added.

Nearly 500 people, mostly combatants, have been killed in and around Kobane and 300,000 have fled the region, two-thirds of them to Turkey, since the assault began in mid-September.

Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, would be a major prize for the jihadists, giving them unbroken control of a long stretch of the border.

The extremists have seized large parts of Iraq and Syria, declaring an Islamic “caliphate” and committing widespread atrocities.

Washington launched an air campaign against IS in Iraq in August, and last month expanded it to Syria with the participation of Arab allies.

After meeting defence chiefs on Wednesday, US President Barack Obama admitted that the fight against IS would not be easy.

“This is not something that is going to be solved overnight,” he said.

The Pentagon said coalition aircraft were hitting IS at every opportunity but that, without a force on the ground to work with, there were limits to what could be done.

“We don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria right now. It’s just a fact,” said spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Obama has dispatched retired US general John Allen, and the US pointman on Iraq, Brett McGurk, to Ankara to squeeze commitments from Turkey on what role it can play in the coalition.

The Turkish response has been complicated by concerns over emboldening Kurdish separatists who have waged a deadly insurgency for three decades.

Pro-Kurdish protesters angered by Turkey’s lack of action have clashed with police for three nights running, defying an army-imposed curfew.

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets again late Wednesday in cities of Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast and were dispersed with water cannon and tear gas, television said.

Protests and sporadic clashes have also erupted in Europe.

More than 1,000 Kurds returned to the streets in Germany overnight, after unrest in the northern port city of Hamburg injured 23 people the previous night.

Turkey has been calling for a buffer zone to protect its border and provide some protection for fleeing Kurds, but Russia said Thursday any such plan would need the UN Security Council’s approval.

More than 180,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in 2011 and evolved into a multi-front civil war that has drawn thousands of jihadists from overseas.

Regime air strikes killed at least eight people Thursday, including two children, in the town of Arabeen, near Damascus, the Observatory said.

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UAE Forces Buy Ground Tactical Datalink

By on Friday, August 29th, 2014

Tactical Communications Group (TCG), the leading independent supplier of Tactical Data Link (TDL) solutions, announced a contract award to provide its Ground Tactical Data Link Systems (GTS) hardware and software components, as well as engineering and operational TDL services, training, and system maintenance, to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Armed Forces. The award is the first Direct Commercial Sale between the UAE Armed Forces and TCG.

The capabilities provided by this system include operational support for Link 16 and Link 11 A/B and a comprehensive and intuitive built-in training and test capability for these data links.

The system also provides a “Multi-MIDS” capability that will allow the Emirates to deploy centralized and overlapping Link 16 coverage across a wide Area of Responsibility. The JREAP capability of the GTS provides additional ability to extend the coverage and share TDL information.

“We are pleased to begin our service for the UAE Armed forces,” said Michael Hiney, TCG’s President and CEO, “and we are looking forward to supporting our Emirati allies as they employ their TDL-equipped capabilities and platforms. TCG is known world-wide for our TDL expertise and we will strive to be a valuable resource for the Emirates.”

“This order is a significant step forward for TCG’s growing worldwide presence, especially within the Arab States of the Gulf,” said Kevin Mawn, TCG Vice President of Operations. “We are very pleased by the Emirate’s confidence in TCG’s capabilities and look forward to helping them grow their TDL ground infrastructure.”

TCG’s Ground Tactical Data Link System (GTS) supports the operational and training needs of end users who integrate Link 16 and other Tactical Data Links (TDLs) into their ground infrastructure to support C2 and non-C2 activities.

The GTS includes features that are found in large scale Command and Control (C2) environments. There is a sophisticated tactical display and MIL-STD-compliant message generator to support TDL operations as well as a powerful and intuitive simulation capability to support training and interoperability testing. Data recording and playback functions allow for data analysis and exercise or operational debrief. The playback functions also allow the platform operators to evaluate tactics and procedures.

The GTS can be configured to support a Multi-MIDS environment that provides Link 16 ground coverage across a large geographic and/or country-wide area.

Founded in 2001, Tactical Communications Group (TCG) is the leading independent supplier of tactical data link (TDL) software solutions for military communications systems.

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Rebels seize ground as West claims Russia army is in Ukraine

Rebels in east Ukraine appear to have seized swathes of territory from retreating government forces, while Western intelligence says Russian army units are operating inside the country.

After weeks of government offensives that have seen troops push deep into the last rebel bastions, the tide appeared to be turning once again in the four-month conflict, prompting a nervous government in Kiev to call on NATO for help.

AFP journalists saw no signs of government troops south of the rebel-held city of Donetsk, with road blocks on the entire 100-kilometre (60-mile) stretch to the Azov Sea manned by pro-Russian rebels.

A volunteer commander posted on Facebook that government forces were surrounded in the key transport hub of Ilovaysk and reinforcements were desperately needed.

Evidence of the deteriorating situation emerged just hours after the first meeting in three months between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, which failed to achieve any concrete breakthrough.

There is increasing concern in Kiev and the West that Russia is intervening directly in the conflict — a charge that Moscow has repeatedly denied.

Ukraine’s government claimed on Wednesday that a battalion of Russian soldiers had set up a military headquarters near the village of Pobeda, around 50 kilometers (30 miles) southeast of Donetsk.

Meanwhile, Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk said NATO and Polish intelligence have evidence of regular Russian army units operating in Ukraine.

A NATO diplomat also told AFP on condition of anonymity that a new Russian anti-aircraft missile system had been detected in a rebel-held area.

The SA-22 air defence system, which has a range of up to 20 kilometers, was “now in the zone”, said the official, adding that Russian support for the rebels had become “more open” recently.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Kremlin was “not interested in breaking up” Ukraine, but said Russia will send more aid convoys to Ukraine “in the nearest future”, despite complaints from Kiev they breach its sovereignty.

Government troops surrounded
In the town of Starobesheve, about 30 kilometers southeast of Donetsk, there were signs of a hasty departure by Ukraine’s army.

A Ukrainian tank sat parked on the roadside as villagers poked around cases of abandoned ammunition, while rebels held all checkpoints in the town.

Locals told AFP the troops left on Monday after shelling from the direction of the Russian border about 30 kilometers away.

Ukraine’s military conceded that “militants together with Russian occupants” had taken control of Starobesheve, as well as a string of villages near Novoazovsk, a town on the Azov Sea where clashes had been raging for days.

Meanwhile, Commander Semen Semenchenko, head of the “Donbass battalion” which was the first fully volunteer contingent to fight in the east, posted angry Facebook messages denouncing the government’s failure to help forces in the transport hub of Ilovaysk.

He said the troops were surrounded by rebels, running out of ammunition and unable to evacuate the injured, and that two regiments of Russian airborne troops were “digging in” with tanks surrounding the town, 10 kilometers east of Donetsk.

Kiev said on Wednesday that 13 soldiers had died in the past 24 hours. AFP reporters saw the charred remains of three civilians whose car was hit by a shell in Donetsk, adding to another three civilians reported killed earlier in the day.

A UN rights report said fighting over the past month had sent the death toll soaring, with at least 36 people killed every day.

More than 2,200 people have lost their lives since the conflict began in April, according to the UN.

Call for NATO aid
Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said it was time for NATO to act when the alliance holds a summit in Wales next week.

“We expect our Western partners and the alliance to provide practical help and take crucial decisions at the summit in September,” he said.

Russia vehemently opposes closer ties between Ukraine and NATO. Concerns that Kiev could be drawn closer into the Western security alliance are seen as the main motivation behind Russia’s actions in recent months.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in an interview published on Wednesday that the alliance was preparing a rapid response unit to deploy troops swiftly in eastern Europe.

Poroshenko and Putin held marathon talks in Belarus’s capital Minsk on Tuesday alongside top EU officials to try to find ways to end the conflict.

The Ukrainian president said all sides had “without exception” agreed to his peace plan, and that he and Putin had discussed the “necessity of closing Ukraine’s borders” to prevent the movement of “equipment, mercenaries, and ammunition”.

Putin again insisted Russia had no role in the fighting, saying: “We cannot discuss any ceasefire conditions. It’s not our business.”

He played down reports that 10 Russian paratroopers had been captured inside Ukrainian territory, backing his military’s claims that they had strayed across the border by accident.

But opposition media in Russia reported on hushed-up funerals for two elite unit paratroopers, suggesting they had been killed in action in Ukraine.

Novaya Gazeta quoted a relative of one of the paratroopers, Leonid Kichatkin, as saying the family was told he was killed outside the rebel-held city of Lugansk.

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Smarter ground robots partnering with Soldiers

“In the Army, we always say, ‘never send our Soldier into a fair fight.’ Each of you here,” from the robotics community, are “helping to make that happen,” said Heidi Shyu, assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics & Technology.

Shyu, who provided the keynote address at National Defense Industrial Association’s Ground Robotics Capabilities Conference & Exhibition here, Aug. 13, emphasized common architecture, open-source software and open standards for robotics development to further competition that will benefit the Army, taxpayers and industry.

The Army is working with industry partners to develop a standard architecture which will enable us to incorporate future (robotics) capabilities rapidly, keeping pace with dramatic commercial improvements, she said.

Getting the development of ground robotics right is important because the systems have become such an essential partner to warfighters, Shyu explained.

In 2004, 162 robotic systems were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, with a primary focus on explosive ordnance disposal, known as EOD, removal.

The use of ground robotics in combat since then has grown exponentially, with more than 7,000 systems currently deployed overseas, she pointed out. Besides helping EOD, ground robots now carry weapons, cameras and sensors for such things as detecting chemical, nuclear and biological material.

“Propriety is the worst word out there today,” said Rich Ernst, interoperability lead, Office of the Secretary of Defense, referring to the opposite of open architecture, bolstering what Shyu had said earlier.

Ernst was part of an Open Architecture panel that followed Shyu’s remarks.

While everyone knows the wisdom of having an open system, habits are hard to break, especially in the Defense Department, he said.

“Primes love open systems,” Ernst said, “but then they’ll tell you: ‘just don’t mess with my existing system.’”

That existing system, he said, is “a legacy environment. They want to go back to that for the next 30 years.

However, primes know they have to change because there are less programs going forward due to fiscal constraints, he added.

Besides an open architecture, Ernst said each system needs to be broken apart, made transparent and competed to the most innovative vendor, which in many cases might likely be small businesses or start-ups.

A typical system might be broken apart into 50 sub-components, he continued. The only problem is the government now has trouble managing “just one chunk.” It will take a while for government to embrace this concept.

Once open standards are implemented and components are competed in the marketplace, the ground robotics systems that emerge will provide the warfighters and the taxpayers their biggest return on investments, he predicted.

Ernst also had a few choice words about “lawyers in the Pentagon who lock things down in contracts” so changes to the platforms that make sense become hard to initiate.

“I found out quickly that no matter how well we come up with the standard or specification, the lawyers undo whatever the engineers do,” he said.

Ernst said he now works with the lawyers and the primes as hard as he works with the software folks to ensure things get done.

Brian Gerkey, CEO of Open Source Robotics Foundation and another panel member, agreed with Ernst’s assessment. He said Robot Operating System, or ROS, builds on open architecture.

ROS is an open-source set of powerful software libraries and tools that helps anyone — from businesses to school kids — build robot applications and share solutions and algorithms “so you’re not constantly reinventing the wheel.”

ROS has about a million users worldwide, he added, including NASA, which is about to install a ROS-developed robotics application on the International Space Station.

Mark Mazzara, Robotics Interoperability lead for Department of the Army Systems Coordinator for Robotics, was the third panel member. He said the Army’s Unmanned Ground Vehicle Interoperability Profile, or IOP, is setting the architecture standard and he hopes to see it accepted DOD-wide because “it’s shown to reduce lifecycle costs.”

Addressing Gerkey’s earlier remarks, Mazzara said “ROS is a great thing. The difference between ROS and IOP is IOP is more focused on interoperability between subsystems — which messages flow between them — not the components in the black box,” which can be created using ROS tools and libraries.

Studies have been conducted showing that both ROS and IOP can coexist, and both can be used to ensure the architecture stays open, he added.

A caveat to that, he said, is that IOP is being developed within the U.S. government and is being shared with allies, including NATO. Industries that want to build components for Army robots need them to be IOP-certified.

Mazzara said he can’t predict the future of IOP, and whether or not the government will turn it over to industry, or to a non-profit robotics association that implements standards down the road.

“We’ll just have to wait and see how it plays out,” he said.

Mazzara added more to his thoughts on what the future holds for ground robots.

He thinks that an industry like agriculture could benefit from using some of the same or similar platforms the Army uses. Although the payloads would obviously be very different, a common mobility platform would make a better business case for internal investments, meaning quantity would drive down the cost of production.

The Army is now focused on modularity, ensuring components can be installed and removed in the “plug-and-play” mode that Shyu mentioned earlier, he said. The next phase, which will happen very soon, will focus on interoperability protocols between robots and manned ground vehicles, ground robots to ground robots and ground robots to unmanned aerial systems.

Besides those interoperability requirements, the Army will soon turn its attention to interfacing geospatial data, databases and even cloud computing with the ground robots so they can become smarter and more autonomous.

A key to all this, he said, is to surf the wave, keeping abreast of developments or emerging technologies in the automotive, mobile phone, software, Unmanned Aircraft Systems, and robotics industries. These are overlapping technologies that have applicability.

While the panel sees a bright future ahead once a few clouds move away, Shyu pointed to two examples where robots are being used successfully today on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

The Mini-EOD, referred to as “Devil Pup,” can locate, identify and disarm explosives, she said. It’s so small and light that a Soldier can carry it in his or her rucksack on a long foot patrol.

Some 300 of them have been in theater over the last few years, at a cost of $35 million.

“It’s truly saving Soldiers’ lives,” she said. “That’s the power of robotics.”

The other is the six-ton, M160 Anti-personnel Mine Clearance system, which can clear minefields in urban areas and practically any field condition. The M160 has “rendered previously unusable roads functional again,” she said.

Near-term Army plans for robots include replacing the Talon Family of Robots with the Man Transportable Robotics System, or MTRS, a process that will take at least seven years, she said, noting that more than 2, 200 Talons have seen combat service over the past decade, and they’re now past their service life.

Both the Talon and MTRS are tracked vehicles, with the Talon weighing 115 to 140 pounds and the MTRS 164. They can carry a number of payloads used for missions ranging from EOD to surveillance, with MTRS having planned chemical detection capability as well.

Between now and 2021, the existing Talons will get upgraded sensors and payload capacity, as a “bridging strategy” until MTRS can come online, Shyu explained.

Returning to her theme of common architecture, Shyu said MTRS will definitely have a capability so that if a camera, sensor, arm or other component becomes obsolete, a new device can be fitted to its common chassis in a “plug-and-play” fashion.

As it stands now, the MTRS Increment II program will soon conduct an analysis of alternatives, “which will determine the best acquisition strategy to gain cost and performance efficiencies across multiple Army formations,” according to the Program Executive Office for Ground Combat Systems.

“The future of ground robots depends on their ability to operate in a very diverse and constrained environment,” Shyu said. “Commercial autonomous vehicles today maneuver very well on well-defined roadways, where GPS maps are available.”

However, formations have to navigate through challenging terrain like deserts, unpaved roads, rocky hillsides, jungles, and urban areas, often in adverse weather like snow, ice and sandy deserts with temperatures in the triple digits.

Add to that contested environments where jamming and possible capture are possible.

“Efforts to overcoming these challenges are essential,” Shyu said.

Despite tough fiscal environments, “our robotics industry continues to innovate,” she concluded. “The future for ground robots has absolutely unlimited potential. Opportunities for invention and innovation are limited only by our own creativity and our willingness to take risks and take on new challenges.”

The Army recognizes the value of science and technology efforts going into robotics, she added.

Despite fiscal challenges, the service is “working very hard to protect its S&T portfolio,” she explained. “It used to be the Army’s fourth biggest portfolio behind aviation, mission command and ground combat systems. It’s now the Army’s third biggest portfolio.

“I’m excited to see what academia and industry can bring in terms of innovative solutions to solve some of our most difficult challenges,” Shyu said.

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Lockheed Integrates Latest Ground Control Station Technology with Fury UAS

To increase expeditionary capabilities in its long endurance Group 3 Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), Lockheed Martin recently fielded its newest Expeditionary Ground Control Station, or “xGCS”, for use with the Fury UAS.

Following its development and manufacturing in Huntsville, Ala., xGCS shipped and was integrated with Fury in San Luis Obispo, Calif. The first xGCS unit was delivered in early 2014 and has completed initial flight testing in preparation for upcoming Fury UAS deployments.

The small and rugged xGCS provides all processing and communications support electronics needed for Fury UAS ground control operations, as well as all supported payload tasking, processing, exploitation and dissemination. Because the xGCS is reliable, powerful and suitable to the most remote deployment locations, it delivers unprecedented flexibility to the Fury UAS.

“The Fury UAS is an expeditionary platform with best-in-industry capabilities,” said Jay McConville, director of business development for Lockheed Martin’s Fury UAS. “It is an Advanced Group 3 UAS with significant increases to endurance, payload capacity, communications capability, and advanced mission management. Often times our warfighters are struggling with the ‘tyranny of distance.’ Fury gives them a toolset to tackle these challenges. For these reasons we needed a ground control hardware implementation that was rugged, light-weight, and incredibly powerful. The xGCS has met all of our requirements and expectations.”

To ensure maximum processing power and deploy-ability, Lockheed Martin applied 20 years of UAS ground control system manufacturing experience to the system. The xGCS is comprised of a mixture of military-rugged and commercial-off-the-shelf hardware within a rugged framework configuration. xGCS is expandable, easy to upgrade and features a small physical profile for use in a variety of mission control configurations. It can support multiple UAS platforms, and can host any standard ground control software suite utilizing its virtual machine technology.

The xGCS is capable of simultaneously running the Sharkfin UAS mission management system and the VCS-4586 product suite, both brought into the Lockheed Martin portfolio in 2012 when the corporation acquired Chandler/May, Inc. and CDL Systems, Inc. The acquisitions added to Lockheed Martin’s five decades of experience in unmanned and robotic systems for air, land and sea. From the depths of the ocean to the rarified air of the stratosphere, Lockheed Martin’s unmanned systems help our military, civil and commercial customers accomplish their most difficult challenges.

Headquartered in Bethesda, Md., Lockheed Martin is a global security and aerospace company that employs about 113,000 people worldwide and is principally engaged in the research, design, development, manufacture, integration and sustainment of advanced technology systems, products and services. The Corporation’s net sales for 2013 were $45.4 billion.

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Ukraine on ‘combat alert’ as rebels gain ground

Ukraine’s armed forces are on “full combat alert” against a possible Russian invasion, Kiev said Wednesday, as authorities admitted they were “helpless” to prevent pro-Kremlin insurgents tightening their grip on the increasingly chaotic east of the country.

Rebels stormed the regional police building and town hall in the eastern Ukrainian city of Gorlivka, local officials told AFP, adding to more than a dozen locations already under their control.

The new seizure followed clashes in nearby Lugansk on Tuesday, as hundreds of pro-Russia protesters spearheaded by a heavily armed mob attacked the police station.

On Wednesday, the rebels lifted their siege of the HQ building after the police chief promised to step down.

In another apparent gain for the rebels, local media reported pro-Russian militants had seized the council building in the city of Alchevsk without encountering resistance.

Ukraine’s interim president Oleksandr Turchynov told his cabinet that the nation’s law enforcement bodies were “helpless” to prevent the insurgents storming official buildings in the restive east.

He said the nation’s armed forces have been put on “full combat alert” in the face of what he called a “real threat” of Russia starting a war against the former Soviet Republic.

Turchynov urged Ukrainian “patriots” to bolster the beleaguered police force, which he has criticized for “inaction and in some cases treachery”.

His priority was to prevent “terrorism” spreading in the restive east, where he said some police officers were even cooperating with the separatists.

He warned also that there could be “acts of sabotage” by Russia during public holidays at the beginning of May.

‘Undeclared war’
The defence ministry announced that the security services would hold drills in central Kiev overnight but this was not expected to involve military hardware.

Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who is a frontrunner for presidential elections on May 25, said Russia had already started an “undeclared war” against her country.

The West has accused Russia of fomenting the crisis and backing the rebels and has imposed sanctions to try to get Moscow to back down.

The United States and EU members see the insurgency as a bid to destabilize Ukraine ahead of the elections but Moscow denies it has a hand in the rebellion.

President Vladimir Putin insisted late Tuesday that there were “neither Russian instructors, nor special units, nor troops” operating in Ukraine.

The separatists have vowed to hold a referendum on closer ties with Russia on May 11.

And Denis Pushilin, one of the leaders of the self-declared Donetsk Republic, told reporters on a trip to Moscow that the eastern Ukrainian region will not take part in the May 25 presidential polls.

The Kremlin said Putin had spoken to British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday and both had agreed that an end to the crisis could only be achieved through peaceful means.

Hope for the OSCE
Meanwhile, negotiations continued to secure the freedom of seven European monitors from the OSCE as the rebel leader holding them said they would be released “at the first opportunity”.

“The dialogue is constructive. We understand each other,” the self-styled mayor of the flashpoint town of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov told reporters.

Talks are dragging on for “technical reasons,” he added, without elaborating.

Michael Bociurkiw, an OSCE spokesman, told reporters in nearby Donetsk that the held men were “in good health” but added: “As the days roll on, you become increasingly concerned about their well-being.”

Putin said he hoped the team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe would soon be able to “freely leave the territory” of Ukraine, but laid the blame squarely at Kiev’s door.

Officials, he said, “should have understood that they (the OSCE inspectors) were entering a conflict zone, a region of the country that does not recognize the authorities’ legitimacy”.

‘Already in recession’
Putin also warned the sanctions against his country could harm Western interests in Russia’s lucrative energy sector.

“If this continues, we will of course have to think about how (foreign companies) work in the Russian Federation, including in key sectors of the Russian economy such as energy,” said Putin, speaking at a regional summit in Minsk.

His comments threaten the operations of some of the world’s biggest energy companies in the resource-rich country, once viewed as a reliable alternative to unstable natural gas and oil-producing countries in the Middle East.

The EU said talks with Russia and Ukraine will take place in Warsaw on Friday to try to resolve a $3.5-billion (2.5-billion-euro) gas bill Gazprom calculates Kiev owes. Putin has threatened to cut off the gas flow to Ukraine if it is not quickly paid.

Russian officials have accused the US of wanting to reinstitute “Iron Curtain”-style policies and warned the sanctions would “boomerang” back to hurt it.

But the tensions are already having an impact on the Russian economy, which the International Monetary Fund announced Wednesday was already “experiencing recession”.

The IMF drastically slashed its 2014 growth forecast for Russia to 0.2 percent from 1.3 percent, amid massive capital outflows since the crisis began.

The Ukrainian economy is also suffering, according to government data published Wednesday, with the economy shrinking 2.0 percent in the first quarter compared to the last three months of 2013.

The EU, which Russia has accused of “doing Washington’s bidding”, is considering beefing up sanctions by targeting Putin’s inner circle but some member states are “very reluctant”, sources told AFP in Brussels.

The crisis in Ukraine has slipped rapidly into a global confrontation since February, when Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych was forced out after months of increasingly bloody protests.

In response, Moscow launched a blitz annexation of the peninsula of Crimea, and stepped up troops deployments on the border.

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