Fierce fighting is raging between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, officials on both sides say. The clashes – said to involve heavy artillery and tanks – are taking place in Maryinka and Krasnohorivka, outside the rebel-held city of Donetsk. There were reports of multiple injuries in the towns held by Ukraine’s army. Clashes between government troops and the rebels have recently intensified despite a ceasefire signed in February.
The Ukrainian government, Western leaders and Nato all say there is clear evidence that Russia is helping the rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions with heavy weapons and soldiers. Independent experts echo that accusation. Moscow denies it, insisting that any Russians serving with the rebels are volunteers. More than 6,400 people have been killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine that began in April 2014 when rebels seized large parts of the two eastern regions. This followed Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula.
In other developments:
- two civilians were killed by mortar fire in the Ukraine-held part of the Luhansk region, Governor Hennadiy Moskal says
- more than 350 people are trapped underground after a coal mine was shelled in Donetsk, reports say
- Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says Russia disagrees with the term “annexation” of Crimea used in a recent speech by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reports; Moscow insists that Crimea was “reunited” with Russia
- the latest round of talks on Ukraine’s peace plan ended without an agreement in Minsk, Belarus, on Tuesday
‘Praying for boys’
Ukrainian officials say the clashes in Maryinka and Krasnohorivka, just west of Donetsk, began with heavy artillery shelling by the rebels early in the morning. “Krasnohorivka and Maryinka are in flames. There is a close-contact fighting taking place along the entire line of contact. Militants are trying to break through,” wrote Ukrainian lawmaker Yevhen Deydey, who acts as a liaison official for the government’s Kiev-1 battalion.
“Praying for our boys,” Mr Deydey added on his blog. More than 20 government soldiers were wounded during the intense fighting, unconfirmed reports say. Ukraine’s military later accused the rebels of staging a full-scale offensive, in violation of the Minsk agreements. It said more than 10 tanks and up to 1,000 rebel fighters were attacking Ukrainian positions in Maryinka.
Ukrainian troops, it added, had been forced to use artillery to repel the offensive. Meanwhile, rebel leaders accused Ukraine of shelling across the line of contact. “This is Kiev’s local provocation, an attempt to break deep into the DPR [the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic] from Maryinka. All of this is local, not large-scale combat clashes,” rebel deputy defence minister Eduard Basurin was quoted as saying by Russia’s Interfax news agency.
Rebel sources also reported on a number of injuries among their forces. Maryinka – a strategically-located town along a major road – has been devastated by months of heavy fighting. The rebels have accused Ukrainian troops stationed in the town of repeatedly shelling Donetsk – a claim denied by the Ukrainian military. Despite the ceasefire, rebel leaders have said they want to seize the parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions currently held by government forces.