KIEV (Reuters) - Six Ukrainian soldiers were killed and eight wounded on Tuesday when their armoured column was ambushed by pro-Russian separatists near the eastern Ukrainian town of Kramatorsk, the Defence Ministry said.
It was the biggest single loss of life by the Ukrainian army since soldiers were sent into the mainly Russian-speaking east of the country to break up armed separatist groups who have seized control of towns and public buildings in a bid to further demands for autonomy.
The ministry, in a statement published on its website, said an armoured column came under fire as it approached a bridge near a village 20 km (12 miles) from Kramatorsk, one of several hot spots in the region where the army has had only limited success against the separatists.
About 30 rebels, who had taken cover among bushes along a river, attacked with grenade-launchers and automatic weapons, immediately killing two soldiers and wounding three others, it said.
"In all, as a result of the prolonged fighting, 6 members of the armed forces were killed. Eight soldiers were wounded, one of them seriously," it said.
Earlier on Tuesday Defence Minister Mikhailo Koval said a total of 9 servicemen had been killed so far in the "anti-terrorist" operation which has been directed mainly against rebels in the towns of Slaviansk and Mariupol.
The dead included 5 pilots, Koval said, who apparently died when their helicopters were downed by separatist fire.
(Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Janet Lawrence)