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US to boost aid to Ukraine, sanctions on separatists

The US will reportedly increase aid to Ukraine's government and levy new sanctions on Kyiv's opponents. NATO's secretary-general has called on belligerents in Ukraine's civil war to let peacekeepers do their work.

Citing unnamed officials, news agencies reported that the US would ship $75 million (71 million euros) in equipment - hand-launched unarmed drones, armored Humvees, radios, countermortar radars - to Ukraine's military. The US also officially announced new sanctions on separatists and the Russian National Commercial Bank.

The sanctions ban any US financial firm from doing business with listed individuals or institutions. The US accuses Russia of sending tanks and military equipment into Ukraine in violation of a ceasefire, which Kyiv needs to stick if it is

to receive a loan

from the International Monetary Fund.

"If Russia continues to support destabilizing activity in Ukraine and violate the Minsk agreements and implementation plan, the already substantial costs it faces will continue to rise," Adam Szubin, acting Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement Wednesday.

Those sanctioned include Roman Lyagin, who chairs a separatist election commission. The Treasury accused him of preventing voting in Ukraine's presidential election last May, which Lyagin denies. "It's the opposite," Lyagin said, referring to the allegations by the US. "I do my best to stop the bloodshed."

The US sanctioned the bank for moving into Crimea after Russia annexed the region.

'OSCE needs access'

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said

Russia continued to supply separatists

in eastern Ukraine. He said the continued hostilities - even after Ukraine's government and separatists had a agreed to a ceasefire in Belarus on February 12 - had made it difficult for monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to enforce the fragile peace after 11 months of civil war.

"Our main message today is that the OSCE needs access," Stoltenberg said at NATO in Brussels on Wednesday. "The monitoring of ceasefire is by no means sufficient today," he added. "Therefore, we call on Russia to withdraw all its forces from eastern Ukraine and to respect the Minsk agreement."

State Department official Victoria Nuland told a US Congressional hearing Tuesday that Russian tanks and artillery had crossed into eastern Ukraine in recent days in breach of the ceasefire deal.

"Even as Ukraine is building a peaceful, democratic, independent nation across 93 percent of its territory, Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine are suffering a reign of terror," Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for Europe, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.

Russia's alleged involvement in the civil war in Ukraine has caused jitters across the region. Smaller Baltic countries like Lithuania - just a quarter century free from the Soviet sphere -

rely heavily on NATO's protection

. Lithuania's neighbors and fellow EU and NATO members Poland and Latvia, however, have expressed skepticism over the proposed

creation of yet another military

to respond to such threats, this one administered by the European Union.

On Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she

would not travel to Moscow

to attend celebrations commemorating the victory of the Soviet Red Army over Nazi Germany to end World War II.

mkg/rc (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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