Seven civilians killed in fierce Ukrainian clashes
“Two civilians — a man and a woman — were killed in overnight shelling in Sartana village,” about two kilometres (1.2 miles) northeast of the government-held port of Mariupol, Volodymyr Kolesnyk, a spokesman for the local health department, told AFP.
Kolesnyk added that six more civilians were wounded and one man was killed in a Kiev-controlled village close to the rebels’ de facto capital Donetsk.
Meanwhile pro-Moscow separatist officials reported the deaths of four civilians in overnight bombardments, three of them in the city of Donetsk.
On Saturday, Ukraine’s army reported coming under the heaviest level of artillery and rocket fire since the two sides signed a February truce deal that has been repeatedly broken since.
Kiev’s pro-Western forces in recent days have been fighting the rebels for control of a strategic highway linking Donetsk with Mariuopol — the last major government-held city in the region.
Most of the road is currently controlled by pro-Kiev units. Its capture would allow the separatist militants to step up their stop-start campaign to capture Mariupol — a port city of nearly half a million on the western edge of the loosely defined demilitarised zone.
Mariupol’s port exports most of the breakaway east’s industrial output and controlling it would be a step towards creating a land bridge between the separatist region and the Russian-annexed Crimea peninsula.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday said that Ukraine’s forces were intensifying their activities in Shyrokine, a flashpoint village 10 kilometres (6 miles) from Mariuopol in what looked like preparations for a fresh onslaught.
“We are concerned by the course of events in recent days which very strongly resembles the preparation for more military action,” Lavrov said at a briefing in Moscow.
Russia denies any links to the insurgents and officially provides them only with political backing at negotiations and United Nations Security Council forums.
Both Kiev and its Western allies accuse the Kremlin of orchestrating and arming the uprising in revenge for Ukraine’s decision to pull out of Moscow’s orbit and ally itself with the European Union.
The United Nations estimates the violence has killed more than 6,800 people since April 2014 and has driven at least 1.4 million from their homes.