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Aftermath of fierce battle

The ferocity of the attack on the fleeing Ukrainian troops was clear, days after the ambush by Russian-backed separatist forces.

More than 30 military vehicles lay in charred piles Tuesday. Villagers said dozens were killed, and some remained unburied. One soldier was blown out of his armoured vehicle — apparently by a shell — his body left dangling from power lines high above.

The rout early Sunday near the village of Novokaterynivka marked a major intensification in the rebel offensive, one that the Ukrainian government, NATO and the United States say has been sustained by Russia's direct military support.

Moscow has stepped up its harsh rhetoric as well. A leaked report said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said President Vladimir Putin told him that Russia could take over Kyiv "in two weeks" if it wished.

Following a month of setbacks in which government troops regained territory, the separatists have been successful in the last 10 days just as columns of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles have been seen crossing the border. President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders will be attending a summit Thursday in Wales to create a rapid-response military team to counter the Russian threat.

Yuri Ushakov, Putin's foreign policy adviser, said the Russian leader's statement on Kyiv was "taken out of context and carried a completely different meaning."

Yet the results of much deadlier weapons of war could not be denied.

The smashed tanks, APCs and trucks were part of a massive column fleeing after being encircled in the town of Ilovaisk, which the Ukrainian government was compelled to concede after weeks of battles. Judging by how close together the stricken vehicles were, the incoming fire was precise and intense.

"They were going to surrender, and they began to bomb them," said Novokaterynivka resident Anatoly Tyrn, who had the turret of a tank land beside his home.

Ukrainian army personnel have been allowed to travel to Novokaterynivka, about 36 kilometres (23 miles) southeast of Donetsk, and surrounding rebel-held areas to retrieve their soldiers' bodies.

Villagers and the separatists say the number of Ukrainian military dead was huge, although the government has maintained a tight lid on the precise figure.

Tyrn said he believed more than 100 had died. Various rebel fighters separately gave estimates, all ranging into the dozens. Associated Press reporters saw at least 11 bodies in the last two days, although it was clear that was only a portion of the overall toll. Most of the dead were removed Monday, the rebels said, although one was buried so shallowly that the decaying remains were still visible.

"Only a few homes in the village have been left untouched," he said.

As Tyrn spoke, the silence was broken by a controlled explosion of abandoned Ukrainian army equipment a couple of miles away.

"That's far away," he said, without flinching.

The Canadian Press

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