Civilians caught in Ukraine crossfire
Death toll rises
International monitors on Friday strongly urged the warring sides in eastern Ukraine to silence their guns as heavy artillery and rocket barrages have continued to pummel residential areas.
At least 33 people including civilians have been killed in fighting this week and several dozens injured in the worst violence in the region since 2015.
“Unacceptable! ... Sides have to stop fighting!” the monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe said on its Facebook page.
The death toll in fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatist rebels that began in April 2014 has exceeded 9,800, according to United Nations figures and a tally of recent fighting.
While the warring sides have regularly exchanged gunfire despite a February 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany, this week has seen a sharp spike in hostilities. Fighting has raged around the governmentcontrolled industrial town of Avdiivka just north of the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk, catching residential areas in crossfire.
“We have seen on both sides an incredible amount of cease-fire violations,” said Alexander Hug, head of the OSCE’s monitoring mission.
Each side blamed the other for the upsurge of violence, but the Ukrainian military has boasted that its troops have gained some ground.
AP reporters saw heavy weapons on both sides of the front line, in clear violation of a 2015 peace deal that envisaged their pullback.
“We have seen the whole range of heavy weapons in the area here, starting from the smaller calibre mortars to larger calibre artillery to multiple launch rocket systems in the areas where they shouldn’t be,” Hug told reporters in Avdiivka.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has cast the outburst of fighting as an argument for continuing Western sanctions imposed on Moscow for its action in Ukraine. President Donald Trump’s repeated promises to improve relations with Russia have fueled Ukraine’s concern that Washington would back off some of the sanctions.
The upsurge of hostilities around Avdiivka coincided with last weekend’s phone conversation between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, their first since Trump took office. Putin on Thursday accused the Ukrainian leadership of ordering the attack in the east to pose as a victim in a bid to secure U.S. and EU support and prevent a thaw in Russia-West ties.
A baby girl cries in her mother’s arms as they stand in queue to get humanitarian aid at the humanitarian aid center in Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine, Friday.