With street battles ongoing on Wednesday, Ukrainian troops took control of a large part of the rebel stronghold in Luhansk, a government spokesman announced.
Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's National Security Council, told reporters Wednesday in Kyiv that government forces were now controlling "significant parts" of Luhansk, an eastern city just 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Russian border.
Lysenko also said that a Ukrainian jet had been shot down over Luhansk on Thursday. He said it was a Su-25 plane that was flying over the outskirts of the city. Lysenko said it was too early to tell who had shot down the plane - the latest in a string of military jets to be hit - or what had happened to the pilot.
That announcement came amid reports of heavy shelling in nearby Donetsk, the main rebel strongholds in eastern Ukraine. AFP journalists reported fierce mortar fire through the center of the city close to the state-of-the-art stadium of football team Shakhtar Donetsk.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian officials also announced that 34 local residents had been killed and a further 29 injured during the past 24 hours in fighting between separatists and troops in the area around Donetsk. Kyiv reported that nine troops were killed and 22 injured in overnight fighting in Ilovaysk, near Donetsk, although government forces had eventually gained overall control of the town.
Over 400,000 displaced, says UN
The intensified fighting comes as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is set to host German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Kyiv, before meeting next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin in what would be the first meeting between the two leaders since June.
According to figures released by the United Nations on Wednesday, the conflict has displaced over 415,000 people and killed more than 2,000 since April 6.
The humanitarian situation remains dire, with many people left without electricity and supplies and access restricted to aid workers. Luhansk has now been left without electricity and water for the 18th consecutive day. A Russian humanitarian aid convoy comprising some 260 trucks with supplies, food, and water has been waiting to cross the border for a week.
glb/mkg (dpa, AP, AFP, Reuters)