Ukraine plans $3 billion boost to defense spending

By Laura Mills

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Aug. 24 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Pro-Russian rebels escorting captured Ukrainian army prisoners on central square in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014. Ukraine has retaken control of much of its eastern territory bordering Russia in the last few weeks, but fierce fighting for the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk persists.

Sergei Grits, Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine — As armored vehicles rumbled through downtown Kiev in an ostentatious celebration of Ukraine's independence, pro-Russian rebels who are battling government forces in the east paraded captured soldiers down the besieged streets of Donetsk and displayed charred wreckages of destroyed Ukrainian tanks.

Sunday's rival demonstrations on Ukraine's 23rd anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union underscored the bitter divide in a country already five months into warfare and making plans for potentially years more of tensions.

President Petro Poroshenko, addressing a highly militarized independence rally in Kiev, vowed to defeat the rebels and safeguard Ukraine's border with Russia by sharply raising defense spending for the coming three years. He warned that Ukraine too often in history had been caught by surprise from eastern invasions.

"It is clear that in the foreseeable future there will always, unfortunately, be the threat of war," Poroshenko said. "And we not only have to learn to live with that. We must always be prepared to defend our independence."

The rebels responded with their own show of strength in their stronghold of Donetsk, parading dozens of captured soldiers through the streets as bystanders tossed eggs and bottles at them. The insurgents also dumped battle-scarred Ukrainian military equipment on a central square, a bold rebuke to Kiev's announcement that it plans to strengthen its military.

While public support and mobilization for Kiev's campaign against the separatists is growing in much of the country, resentments fester in much of the east, where civilian casualties and shelling, often from Ukrainian military positions, have become a part of daily life.

In Kiev more than 20,000 people, many waving the country's blue and yellow flags or donning traditional embroidered shirts, watched the parade on Kiev's Independence Square, where months of protests earlier this year ended in the ouster of the country's former pro-Russian president.

Poroshenko announced he would raise military spending by 40 billion hryvnia ($3 billion) through 2017, an effective 50 percent increase from current budget targets.

Ukrainian military leaders have pleaded for extra resources as they face a potentially protracted fight against separatists. In recent weeks, Kiev's troops have scored heavy gains in territory and encircled the east's regional capitals of Luhansk and Donetsk. The United Nations estimates that more than 2,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting since April, a toll that rises almost daily.

Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security Council, told journalists Sunday that 722 members of Ukraine's armed forces have died in the fighting, with five killed and eight wounded in the past day alone.

In Donetsk, militants paraded captured soldiers, some dressed in military fatigues and others in tattered civilian clothes, through a central square as people in a crowd of several thousand shouted abusive slurs at them.

One visibly agitated man yelled obscenities as he held an infant in one arm. A woman shouted "Hang the fascists from a tree!" Other women rushed at the prisoners, trying to kick and slap them, and were restrained by rebel fighters.

The rebels placed several fire-blackened, shrapnel-shredded Ukrainian military vehicles in Donetsk's main square. Russian nationalist songs blasted from speakers as supporters posed for photos in front of a destroyed tank. The crowd appeared on edge as dozens of fighters gathered in formation, then quickly dispersed at the sound of artillery fire in the distance.

"Today is the so-called independence day of what was Ukraine. And look what has happened to their equipment. This is what has become of Ukraine!" said a pro-Russian rebel fighter who identified herself by her battle name, Nursa, pointing at the remains of a Ukrainian troop transport.

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