SHAFAQNA – Ukraine rushed tanks to the front lines in a counter-offensive against pro-Russian rebels fighting for control of Donetsk airport, with heavy shelling shaking the key eastern city on Sunday. At least six people were killed, including four soldiers, houses were destroyed and electricity was cut for many homes and businesses as explosions repeatedly ripped through parts of the Donetsk region.
Most of the blasts rang out from the area surrounding Donetsk airport northwest of the city as the army and rebels battled for control of the blackened and wrecked site hit by months of on-off clashes.
But some were also heard closer to the city centre, and Donetsk officials reported “massive damage to housing stock, infrastructure and communications of the city”.
Rebel officials reported at least two civilians killed, bringing the toll since Thursday to at least 23 dead, including 13 Ukrainian soldiers.
With rebels at one point claiming to control the airport, about 10 Ukrainian tanks rumbled across the snow toward the front lines on Saturday to reinforce soldiers desperately trying to defend it, local television showed.
The army’s aim was to push the rebels back and open a corridor to evacuate the wounded, with the insurgents having earlier unleashed a barrage of heavy artillery fire at the airport, including from at least one tank.
Intense clashes resulted throughout Saturday night and into Sunday, and residents of the northwestern area of the city said neighbourhoods had also been hit by shelling.
“Ukrainian troops received the order and massively opened fire against known separatist positions,” Yuri Biryukov, an advisor to Ukraine’s president located near the front line, wrote on his Facebook page.
Public transport shut down and stores closed in parts of the city on Sunday.
“All night, shells flew over our house,” said Margarita, 24, a resident of the city’s northwest. “This morning windows broke from the trembling — very scary.”
Another resident a couple kilometres from the airport said a children’s hospital had been damaged.
The military confirmed launching an operation to push out the rebels and spoke of difficult and intense fighting, while on Sunday it said four more soldiers had been killed and 32 wounded.
– Truce in tatters –
An upsurge in violence in recent days in eastern Ukraine centred around the airport has left in tatters an often violated September truce, which was followed by another accord in December.
Meanwhile, negotiations aimed at bringing peace have stalled, with a contract group of representatives from Russia, Ukraine and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, along with rebel leaders, postponing talks that were due to take place last Friday in Minsk.
A summit that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has been seeking to organise with the leaders of Russia, France and Germany has also been put off.
There has been talk of holding the summit at the end of the month, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said there would be no point if fighting continues.
The conflict that broke out in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland in April 2014 has left more than 4,800 people dead.
Ukraine and Western nations say Russia has supported the rebels with troops and weapons, charges Moscow strongly denies despite witness claims to the contrary.
Russia is under heavy sanctions from the West over its actions in Ukraine, and the UN Security Council plans to meet on Wednesday to discuss the flareup of violence.