Story highlights

Leader of self-declared separatist republic in eastern Ukraine challenges Poroshenko

Fighting has raged in eastern Ukraine despite ceasefire signed two months ago

Ukrainian Prime Minister says Kiev will not negotiate directly with rebels

(CNN) —  

After thousands of deaths and months of futile attempts to avoid more in Ukraine’s fight with pro-Russian rebels, leaders on both sides talked past each other Wednesday, with one saying direct negotiations were off the table and another suggesting that the war be settled with a duel.

Igor Plotnitsky, leader of the self-declared separatist republic in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region, said he challenges Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to a one-on-one fight to end the monthslong conflict.

Regardless of whether Plotnitsky’s offer was sincere, it reflected a serious reality: A war that has spread misery in eastern Ukraine and heightened tensions between Russia and the West is still going on, despite a supposed ceasefire that the two sides signed two months ago.

“Let’s follow the example of the ancient Slavic leaders and glorious Kazakh chiefs and clash in a fight,” Plotnitsky said, adding that Poroshenko could pick the time and weapons, according to ITAR-Tass. “The one who wins will dictate the terms to the opposite side.”

Ukraine’s government made no immediate public response.

But Kiev did say that two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and more than a dozen others were wounded in clashes across eastern Ukraine on Tuesday.

And Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Wednesday that Kiev would not negotiate directly with the rebels, arguing that a ceasefire deal already had been made and all that anyone needed to do was follow it.

“Fulfill the Minsk agreement if you want peace,” Yatsenyuk said, according to state-run media outlet Ukrinfom. Minsk is the Belarus capital where the sides reached the deal.

“In order to guarantee reaching peace we need to negotiate in a format accepted by the whole world and, first of all, suitable for Ukraine,” Yatsenyuk said.

Pro-Russian separatists have claimed control of parts of eastern Ukraine since the spring, despite a push by Ukrainian forces to defeat them. From mid-April to September 16 alone, the conflict had killed at least 3,500 people and injured at least 8,100 others, according to the United Nations.

The sides reached a ceasefire agreement in September, but fighting has returned to levels that preceded the ceasefire, a British security source who has detailed knowledge of the matter told CNN earlier this month.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of supporting the rebels by sending Russian troops, weapons and supplies. Just last week, U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the commander of NATO forces in Europe, said that his government has seen Russian tanks, artillery, air defense systems and troops heading into Ukraine.

A day earlier, Breedlove said Russia had moved “forces that are capable of being nuclear” into Crimea, which was Ukrainian territory until being folded into Russia on the heels of a government turnover earlier this year. Crimea borders southeastern Ukraine, where much of the current unrest is focused and into which Russian troops allegedly have moved.

The United States and European countries have imposed economic sanctions on Russia over its involvement in Ukraine. Russian officials have frequently denied claims their military has sent forces into eastern Ukraine to bolster the rebels.

Unrest in Ukraine began with protests in the country’s capital last year after pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, favoring closer ties to Russia, dropped plans to sign a political and economic agreement with the European Union.

After months of protests and days of deadly clashes between demonstrators and security personnel in Kiev, Parliament ousted Yanukovych in February. Weeks later, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula.

In April, violence broke out in two Ukrainian regions that border Russia – Donetsk and Luhansk – as separatist leaders declared independence from the government in Kiev.

Journalist Victoria Butenko and CNN’s Brian Walker and Greg Botelho contributed to this report.