Separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, backed by Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers, battled government forces on two fronts Thursday, a Ukrainian military official said.
The fighting was taking place southeast of Donetsk, and along the nation's southern coast in the town of Novoazovsk, about 12 miles (20 km) from the Russian border, according to Mykhailo Lysenko, the deputy commander of the Ukrainian Donbas battalion.
"This is a full-scale invasion," Lysenko said, referring to the fighting in the south.
A day earlier, Ukraine's National Defense and Security Council told reporters that Russian forces were directing massive artillery fire over the border at Novoazovsk.
Russian forces and pro-Russia rebels have seized villages around the town, the NSDC said.
The NDSC also claimed that members of a Russian tactical battalion were present in the village of Pobeda, in Ukraine's Luhansk region.
"If these troops got lost and accidentally found themselves in Ukraine as well, they should go back East," the update said.
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A new wave of Israeli airstrikes battered areas of Gaza early Thursday, continuing the deadly onslaught aimed at stopping militant rocket fire into Israel.
The days-long aerial bombardment of Gaza has killed 76 Palestinians, including women and children, and injured more than 500 since it began Monday, Palestinian officials said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the offensive would be expanded and continue "until the firing at our communities stops and quiet is restored."
But there was no sign that Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza were backing down as rockets continued to streak over the border into southern Israel. No Israelis have been killed so far in the rocket attacks.
Some Israeli officials have hinted at the possibility of a ground offensive in Gaza, although questions remain about the government's appetite for such a conflict.
Netanyahu didn't specify what the expansion of the current operation, which began Monday, would entail, but he said Israel's military "is prepared for all possibilities."
President Shimon Peres, whose role is largely ceremonial and is not involved in setting policy, said in an exclusive interview with CNN's Becky Anderson that he believed a ground offensive "may happen quite soon" unless Hamas stops firing rockets at Israel.
"We warned them. We asked them to stop it," Peres told Anderson. "We waited one day, two days, three days and they continued, and they spread their fire on more areas in Israel."
While Peres was speaking on his own and his position may not outline an official government policy, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz earlier told CNN that a ground operation "might become necessary."
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, convened an emergency meeting of his cabinet on Wednesday to discuss the crisis.
"This war is not against Hamas or another political party but it is against the Palestinian people," he told the media afterward. "What do you call this crime? What is this crime known under international law? To kill entire families, is this collective punishment?
"This is called collective genocide."
A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said Israel's threat to launch a "stupid" ground offensive didn't scare anyone, and fighters from Hamas' military wing were ready to face off with Israel's "coward" soldiers in Gaza.
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As rockets and missiles fly back and forth between Gaza and Israel, the Israeli military - saying it doesn't expect the crisis to resolve itself soon - is preparing for a ground incursion.
Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told CNN such an operation "might become necessary," and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said the security operation against the militant group Hamas "will probably not end within several days."
On Tuesday, the Israeli Cabinet gave the authorization for the military to call up 40,000 troops if needed, 10,000 more than were called up during Israel's offensive into Gaza in November of 2012. Only about 1,000 have been called up so far.
"I hope ... that it's not going to escalate into an all-out war," said Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestinian representative to the United States. "For the Israelis, they have to know that there's no military solution to this problem."
Still, recent days have brought a dramatic escalation in the conflict.
Militants fired more than 130 rockets at Israeli civilians, Israel said Tuesday. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it targeted about 160 "terror sites" in Gaza in the early hours of Wednesday, after carrying out 150 airstrikes the day before.
"Overnight, terror organizations in the Gaza Strip suffered a severe blow, as the numerous IDF strikes in Gaza managed to significantly impair terrorist capabilities and prevent possible schemes against Israelis," said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman.
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An Israeli security operation against the militant group Hamas "will probably not end within several days," Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said Tuesday.
The development appeared to confirm fears that the conflict would continue to escalate.
"We will not tolerate rocket fire and we are prepared to expand the operation and to exact a heavy toll on Hamas," he said.
Overnight, Israel ramped up its airstrikes on Hamas in Gaza.
The Israeli military's Operation Protective Edge against Hamas has entered a "substantial phase," with airstrikes hitting around 50 targets, including militant houses and military compounds, Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner told CNN.
"We are determined to restore a state of security," he said.
Hamas security sources reported at least 60 Israeli airstrikes across Gaza, including from F-16s, Apache helicopters and drones. The sources said at least 10 people were wounded.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel to immediately stop its strikes, warning the operation would drag the region into instability.
Abbas said a truce was needed to "spare the innocent from mass destruction."
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Russia does not want to take over Ukraine's Crimea region, President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday, but he showed no signs of backing down on Russia's presence in the region despite Western pressure.
Putin labeled what had happened in Ukraine an "anti-constitutional coup and armed seizure of power," and he insisted that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is the legitimate leader of the nation.
He called the parliament in Ukraine "partly legitimate" but said the country's acting President is not.
At the same time, he said he saw no political future for Yanukovych, who resurfaced in Russia on Friday after fleeing Kiev 10 days ago.
Appearing at ease as he addressed a handful of reporters in Moscow, Putin said only the people of Crimea, a Russian-dominated autonomous region, could determine their future.
Putin said that there was no need for the use of the military so far, with not a shot fired, and that any use of military force would be the last resort.
But if Russian-speaking citizens in the east of Ukraine ask for Russia's help, Russia has the right "to take all measures to protect the rights of those people," he said. He repeatedly cast any such intervention as a humanitarian mission.
Military action, he said, would be "completely legitimate" because it was at the request of Yanukovych and in line with Russia's duty to protect people with historic ties to Russia, both cultural and economic.
"Firstly, we have a request of the legitimate President Yanukovych to protect the welfare of the local population. We have neo-Nazis and Nazis and anti-Semites in parts of Ukraine, including Kiev," Putin said.
Russian forces have not fired a shot since they crossed into Crimea, he said.
Putin pointed out what he sees as a double standard by leaders in the United States and other Western countries, saying that the U.S. acted in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya without a U.N. resolution authorizing that action or by "twisting" U.N. resolutions.
And he warned that any damage from sanctions imposed by the West against Russia over its actions in Ukraine would be multilateral.
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