LUHANSK, Ukraine, Sept. 1 (UPI) -- Ukrainian troops retreated from the airport of the contested city of Luhansk, as rebel forces gained ground in eastern and southern Ukraine.
The government's security council said Monday its troops withdrew from Luhansk airport "in an organized manner." Pro-Russian separatists also made advances in nearby Donetsk and further south near the city of Mariupol. The Ukrainian news agency UNIAN, quoting a senior officer, said as many as 680 soldiers had been taken by rebel forces, the majority near the town of Ilovaysk, near Donetsk, where troops were cut off by rebel advances.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, speaking Saturday after a summit meeting in Brussels, called the situation "very close to the point of no return. The point of no return is full-scale war, which already happened in the territory controlled by separatists and where, instead of separatists, there are regular Russian troops."
Armored columns of troops, vehicles and military equipment have crossed the border from Russia in Ukraine, the West and Ukraine claim, although Russian President Vladimir Putin rejects the allegations. Sunday he suggested a discussion on the issue of "statehood" for eastern Ukraine, as rebel representatives at an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe meeting in Minsk, Belarus called for "special status" for the region that would "take into consideration the necessity of deepening economic integration with Russia."
With the Ukrainian government eager to increase its ties to the European Union, and last week declared itself prepared to apply to join NATO, the Russian and pro-Russian suggestions would essentially split Ukraine in two.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for a "peaceful settlement of this severe crisis" and claimed there was "no military intervention" by Russia.