Fighting between Russian troops and the Ukrainian military intensified on Thursday after Russian soldiers and pro-Moscow separatists have reportedly opened up a new front in south-eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian troops are battling a combined Russian and separatist forces in the new front located around the border town of Novoazovsk, east of Crimea on the Sea of Azov. This also comes amid other reports that Russian troops were increasing surveillance from northern Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Moscow in March.
While various news sources have suggested that shelling and fire fights continued all Wednesday, there were differing reports on whether the city of Novoazovsk – hitherto a calm and quiet town– had fallen in the hands of Russian-backed rebels.
Russian troops and their allies do control areas and villages north of that town, military spokesman Andriy Lysenko was cited as saying by the Washington Post.
However, according to BBC, which reported, citing journalists from the area, Russian forces have indeed taken the town, and are heading for the key port of Mariupol.
"The guys from the east shot the positions of the Ukrainian army and the army left Novoazovsk," freelance journalist Petr Shelomovsky told the British news channel.
"Since the morning, they've been leaving the town and we've probably seen the last armoured personnel carrier leaving the place."
Meanwhile, the US has expressed "deep concern" at the latest developments in Ukraine.
"These incursions indicate a Russian-directed counter-offensive is likely under way in Donetsk and Luhansk," state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday.
The US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt said via Twitter: "An increasing number of Russian troops are intervening directly in fighting on Ukrainian territory."
The widespread reports of Russian troops movements and fighting in Ukraine -- which came only a day after the leaders of the two countries met in the Belarusian capital Minsk and discussed to build a 'roadmap' for peace in the region – has triggered a renewed criticism from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The organisation's secretary general told a British newspaper on Wednesday that it will deploy forces to new bases in eastern Europe for the first time in response to the deteriorating situation in Ukraine.
"We have reports from multiple sources showing quite a lively Russian involvement in destabilising eastern Ukraine," The Guardian quoted Anders Fogh Rasmussen as saying.
"We have seen artillery firing across the border and also inside Ukraine. We have seen a Russian military buildup along the border. Quite clearly, Russia is involved in destabilizing eastern Ukraine ... You see a sophisticated combination of traditional conventional warfare mixed up with information and primarily disinformation operations. It will take more than NATO to counter such hybrid warfare effectively."