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Pro-Russia separatists in control of coastal town

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A local resident passes by camouflaged pro-Russian tank in the town of Novoazovsk, in eastern Ukraine, Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. In Novoazovsk, pro Russian rebel fighters looked to be in firm control, well-equipped and relaxed. At least half a dozen tanks were seen on roads around the town, although the total number at the rebels’ disposal is believed to be much greater. Novoazovsk fell swiftly to the rebels Wednesday after being pounded by shelling.(AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

A local resident passes by camouflaged pro-Russian tank in the town of Novoazovsk, in eastern Ukraine, Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. In Novoazovsk, pro Russian rebel fighters looked to be in firm control, well-equipped and relaxed. At least half a dozen tanks were seen on roads around the town, although the total number at the rebels’ disposal is believed to be much greater. Novoazovsk fell swiftly to the rebels Wednesday after being pounded by shelling.(AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Captured Ukrainian border guards sit in a garage at the Novoazovsk border crossing point, in eastern Ukraine, Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. At Novoazovsk, rebel fighters looked to be in firm control, well-equipped and relaxed. At least half a dozen tanks were seen on roads around the town, although the total number at the rebels’ disposal is believed to be much greater. Novoazovsk fell swiftly to the rebels Wednesday after being pounded by shelling.(AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

A pro-Russian rebel listens to the news on a transistor radio in the town of Novoazovsk, in eastern Ukraine, Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. In Novoazovsk, pro Russian rebel fighters looked to be in firm control, well-equipped and relaxed. At least half a dozen tanks were seen on roads around the town, although the total number at the rebels’ disposal is believed to be much greater. Novoazovsk fell swiftly to the rebels Wednesday after being pounded by shelling.(AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with participants in the youth educational forum at the Seliger youth camp near Lake Seliger, some 450 kilometres (281 miles) northwest of Moscow, in Tver region, Russia, Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on Friday called on pro-Russian separatists to release Ukrainian soldiers who have been surrounded by the rebels in eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)

A camouflaged pro-Russian tank seen in the town of Novoazovsk, in eastern Ukraine, Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. In Novoazovsk, pro Russian rebel fighters looked to be in firm control, well-equipped and relaxed. At least half a dozen tanks were seen on roads around the town, although the total number at the rebels’ disposal is believed to be much greater. Novoazovsk fell swiftly to the rebels Wednesday after being pounded by shelling.(AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

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NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Pro-Russia separatists, relaxed and well-equipped, held firm control on Friday of the strategic coastal town of Novoazovsk, a day after Ukraine claimed tanks and armored vehicles had invaded from Russia.

Associated Press reporters saw at least a half-dozen tanks in the town of about 12,000 people, bearing the flags of Novorossiya, the would-be state proclaimed by rebels in two eastern Ukraine regions. None of the tanks bore Russian markings, but ready-made meals seen near one of the tanks carried markings that they were issued by the Russian army.

“There is no Russian equipment coming through here. We are fighting with the machinery the (Ukrainian forces) abandon. They just dump it and flee,” said a rebel commander who identified himself only by the nom-de-guerre Frantsuz (The Frenchman).

Although such claims of using only confiscated Ukrainian equipment are common, top rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko himself has said Russia was supplying equipment and fighters. And Russia’s consistent rejection of the allegations is hotly dismissed by the West.

“Despite Moscow’s hollow denials, it is now clear that Russian troops and equipment have illegally crossed the border,” NATO Secretary-General Ander Fogh Rasmussen said Friday. “This is a blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It defies all diplomatic efforts for a peaceful solution.”

On Thursday, NATO said at least 1,000 Russian troops are in Ukraine and later released what it said were satellite photos of Russian self-propelled artillery units moving last week.

A spokesman for the rebels in Novoazovsk, who identified himself only as Alexander, said their plan was to try to eventually push westward to the major port city of Mariupol, about 35 kilometers (20 miles) away. There was no sign of imminent movement on Friday, but Alexander’s statement underlined fears that the rebels’ eventual aim is to establish a land bridge between Russia and the Russia-annexed Crimea peninsula further to the west.

The rebels also showed four Ukrainian soldiers and a wounded fighter from the pro-government Azov Battalion who were being held captive.

The wounded fighter, Maxim, said he was taken when his vehicle was ambushed and two comrades killed. “Now I am here and there are negotiations taking place for me to be exchanged,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called on pro-Russian separatists to release Ukrainian soldiers who have been surrounded by the rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Putin’s statement came several hours after Ukraine accused Russia of entering its territory with tanks, artillery and troops, and Western powers accused Moscow of lying about its role and dangerously escalating the conflict.

“I’m calling on insurgents to open a humanitarian corridor for Ukrainian troops who were surrounded in order to avoid senseless deaths,” Putin said in the statement published on the Kremlin’s web-site in the early hours on Friday.

Putin didn’t address the claims about Russia’s military presence in Ukraine. Instead, he lauded the pro-Russian separatists for “undermining Kiev’s military operation which threatened lives of the residents of Donbass and has already led to a colossal death toll among civilians.”

Putin’s statement could be referring to Ukrainian troops who have been trapped outside the strategic town of Ilovaysk, east of Donetsk, for nearly a week now. Protesters rallied outside the Ukrainian General Staff on Thursday, demanding reinforcements and heavy

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