Ukraine's Zelensky on frontline as Merkel urges Putin to pull back troops

a man standing on a rock: Twenty-five Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the start of the year, compared with 50 in all of 2020 © STR Twenty-five Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the start of the year, compared with 50 in all of 2020

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky travelled to the country's eastern frontline on Thursday, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Vladimir Putin to reduce Russia's troop buildup near Ukraine.

Zelensky's frontline visit came as fighting between the Ukrainian army and separatists has intensified in recent weeks and Russia has built up troops along the border, raising fears of a major escalation in the long-running conflict in Ukraine's mainly Russian-speaking east.

In a phone call with Putin on Thursday, Merkel urged him to reduce Moscow's "troop reinforcements" on the border "to de-escalate tensions".

Putin for his part "drew attention to the provocative actions of Kiev, which has recently been purposefully exacerbating the situation on the frontline," the Kremlin said.

The Ukrainian military on Thursday announced that another of its soldiers had been killed, bringing to 25 the number of troops killed since the start of the year, compared with 50 in all of 2020.

Zelensky, who has urged NATO to speed up his country's membership into the alliance to support Ukraine, said he had visited positions where "the largest number of violations" of a ceasefire had been recorded, the presidency said in a statement.

Images released by his office showed Zelensky in the trenches clad in a helmet and bulletproof vest, handing out awards to Ukrainian soldiers and shaking their hands.

"Thank you for keeping people calm and protecting our land. You are a real example of heroism and dedication," Zelensky said. "We remember every soldier who died defending our state."

- 'Shot in the leg' -

Fighting in the conflict, which erupted after Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, subsided in 2020 as a new ceasefire agreement took hold last July.

But clashes, mainly involving artillery and mortar fire, have picked up again since the start of the year, with both sides blaming each other.

Ukrainian separatists are widely seen as having Russia's political and military backing, which Moscow denies.


Video: What’s next for the seven-year war in eastern Ukraine? (Al Jazeera)

Ukraine's Zelensky on frontline as Merkel urges Putin to pull back troops