Four Ukrainian soldiers and at least as many civilians died on Friday in an upsurge of rocket attacks that came just as prospects for international peace talks on the nine-month crisis dimmed.
Local authorities in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk said that another nine residents were injured in sporadic clashes that continued from dawn late into the evening around the industrial city’s disputed airport.
The air hub — once the busiest in Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking east — has been held by a skeleton force of government soldiers since late May last year.
Near-daily attacks on the site by pro-Russia insurgents have resulted in heavy civilian casualties as volleys of long-range rocket fire from both sides go astray.
“After a long spell of quiet, the attacks resumed again tonight,” Oksana, a 27-year-old mother of three, said as sporadic booms echoed in distance.
She said that neighborhoods around the airport had effectively been cut off from the rest of the city by the shelling.
“Public transport refuses to come here,” Oksana said.
However, “our biggest worry is that one of the shells hits a boiler or gas pipeline, and we and the children end up having no heat,” she added.
Temperatures in Donetsk have been hovering around minus-10?C as the long winter settles in.
Ukranian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko blamed the spike in rebel attacks on new weapons supplies that he alleged were provided to the rebels by Russia under the guise of humanitarian aid.
Moscow on Thursday sent its 11th shipment of trucks into eastern Ukraine since the start of the crisis.
The Kremlin said that the convoy — which Kiev sees as a breach of its sovereignty — was carrying winter supplies for civilians in the militia-controlled regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.
“It should be stressed that the terrorists’ provocations are occurring immediately after the arrival in Ukraine of [Russian] humanitarian convoys,” Lysenko told reporters, adding that there were 124 trucks in the latest Russian supply mission.
The tensions come less than a week before Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko hoped to convene the first leadership meeting on the crisis since a fractious round in Milan, Italy, broke up without any progress three months ago.
The Western-backed leader last month said he hoped to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin directly at a conference in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, on Thursday next week that would also include the leaders of Germany and France.
However, both the Kremlin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office have said that a specific date for the talks is still being discussed.
The foreign ministers of the four countries agreed to meet in Berlin tomorrow to try to clarify the summit’s timeframe and agenda.
However, German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that the four leaders would only fly to Central Asia if they thought “tangible progress” could be made.
“We are still far away from that,” Steinmeier added.
Russia is expected to use the gathering — once it happens — to demonstrate its stated commitment to halting the hostilities that have already claimed more than 4,700 lives.
The violence has eased since the Ukrainian government and rebels agreed a reinforced truce deal on Dec. 9 last year.
The Kremlin denies Ukrainian and Western charges that it is backing the rebellion to extend its influence in the former Soviet republic after the ouster of a Moscow-backed president in February last year.
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