New unidentified armored columns rumbled toward the pro-Moscow rebel stronghold in eastern Ukraine on Monday as fears grew of a return to all-out fighting in the war-torn region.
The Netherlands meanwhile was set to hold an emotional ceremony for the victims of the MH17 flight shot down over the separatist-held eastern Ukraine in July in a tragedy that brought the conflict in the ex-Soviet state to the international fore.
Flags flew at half mast in the country and at Dutch diplomatic missions abroad ahead of a commemoration in Amsterdam for the 298 people killed when the Malaysia Airlines flight was blown out of the sky.
Ukraine and the West blame Russia for supplying the pro-Kremlin separatists with the missile that shot down the plane, while Moscow and the rebels have pointed the finger at Kiev forces.
On the ground in Ukraine, intensified weekend shelling around the rebel stronghold of Donetsk and more armoured columns heading to the city ratcheted up concerns the rebels could be gearing up for an offensive after weeks of isolated skirmishes.
An AFP journalist saw a total of 21 trucks, six tanks and 14 howitzer cannons driving through rebel-territory to Donetsk on Monday, after similar hardware arrived on Sunday and after the West sounded a warning over heavy military reinforcements for the Kremlin-backed separatists.
The White House expressed grave concern at reports of Russian military reinforcements in eastern Ukraine, warning that any separatist efforts to seize more territory would be a “blatant violation” of a September ceasefire agreement that had halted full-scale fighting but failed to stop shelling at key flashpoints.
“We are very concerned by intensified fighting in eastern Ukraine, as well as numerous reports… that Russian backed and supplied separatists are moving large convoys of heavy weapons and tanks to the front lines of the conflict,” US National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement.
And the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said reports of military reinforcements were a “very worrying development” and called on Russia to prevent further movement of “troops, weapons and equipment”.