SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) Heavy fighting broke out Sunday between Ukrainian and rebel forces on the north side of Donetsk, killing at least six people in one of the most serious clashes since the 10-day-old cease-fire came into force. The airport, where Ukrainian troops are almost surrounded, was on fire, billowing black smoke, and a house and a city market burned just off the main boulevard inside the city.
“It’s not a cease-fire, it’s full-on fighting,” a rebel fighter said. Tanks were out on the streets mid-afternoon, and pro-Russian rebel fighters raced reinforcements along the main boulevard in civilian cars toward their positions on the approaches to the airport.
In a residential area just off the main boulevard, hospital workers collected bodies from the sidewalks and homes hit hours earlier. They took at least six, most of them elderly people who appeared to have been walking home from the market, and a rebel policeman who had been trying to guide people to cover when he was hit.
Artillery fire resounded for hours through Saturday night and much of the day Sunday as Ukrainian forces at the airport and areas northwest of the city traded fire with the separatist forces that control the city and most of the surrounding territory. It was unclear who instigated the fighting or why, but the sound of rifle fire at the airport mid-afternoon indicated the two sides were engaged in close combat.
The two sides have shelled each other almost daily since the cease-fire agreement was signed Sept. 5, each blaming the other for violations, but generally the intense, large-scale battles of recent months have ceased. Sunday’s action was, however, a marked escalation, suggesting that one side or the other was on the attack.
Rebel fighters who brought one of their wounded to the city hospital said fighting was underway in the contested village of Pesky, on the outskirts of the city, where both sides have a foothold, they said. Ukrainian troops had been strengthening their positions in the village in recent days and were firing on rebel positions, they said. Tanks and multiple rocket launchers also repeatedly sounded from rebel bases inside the city.
Representatives of the Ukrainian military could not immediately be reached for comment. Agence France-Presse quoted one official as blaming the fighting on the rebels, who he said had launched a broad offensive at the airport.
The shelling inside the city at midday shocked residents, most of whom have been venturing out shopping and fetching necessities since the cease-fire came into effect.
An elderly woman in white plastic sandals lay dead on the sidewalk covered by a military blanket, her arms outstretched and her walking stick beside her. Another woman was killed on a path leading toward the nearby school, which took a direct hit. A third died in her yard, her front gate ripped off its hinges by the shell blast.
The hospital workers were driving a battered gray van to collect the bodies. They wrapped them in plastic and carried them on a canvas stretcher to the van, sweating from the strain. At each stop the van would barely start, and at one stop residents helped push the vehicle to get it going.
Ambulance workers arrived to tend to a pensioner who had been stuck by shrapnel at the entrance to his apartment block. People had dragged him inside the entrance, but he had bled to death in the three hours it took for the ambulance to arrive, they said. His brother arrived at the same time as the ambulance and crumpled against the door weeping.
“We don’t know what war will be like if this is a cease-fire,” said one of his neighbors, taking a deep drag on his cigarette.
Yelena, a government worker, was coming home on the bus from shopping when the shelling began about noon. She and another woman got down from the bus and tried to proceed on foot.
“We heard a whistle and fell on the ground,” she said. They ran on and met the rebel policeman. “He was trying to help and tell us where to hide,” she said. They took cover in a basement and seconds later he was killed, she said. Like many interviewed in rebel-held areas she would only give her first name, for fear of retribution.
The government gave no warning or advice to citizens, she said. “Nobody explains what is happening,” she said. “You hear a whistle and it begins,” she said.
Further along a house was burning. “Everything is gone, the whole house is burned,” a woman shouted on her cellphone. “They tell you to hide in the bathroom, but that is no good, everything is burning, everything,” she said.
No one was killed, as the family had moved away, but the house took a direct hit and caught fire, neighbors said. As they spoke two artillery rounds fell close by and the small crowd scattered, running to the school building opposite for cover.
The woman was weeping now on her phone. “Igor, don’t come over here, there is no point, everything is gone and there is heavy shelling again. Don’t come, Igor, don’t come.”