Worst fighting in east Ukraine since 2015; 33 dead this week as residential area hit
International monitors on Friday strongly urged the warring sides in eastern Ukraine to silence their guns as heavy artillery and rocket barrages continued to pummel residential areas.
At least 33 people including civilians have been killed and several dozen injured in fighting this week in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed separatist rebels — the worst violence in the region since 2015.
The death toll in the fighting that began in April 2014 has now exceeded 9,800, according to U.N. figures and a tally of recent fighting.
“Unacceptable! ... Sides have to stop fighting!” the monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe said on its Facebook page.
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 government-controlled industrial town of Avdiivka, just north of the main rebel stronghold, Donetsk, catching residential areas in the crossfire.
“We have seen on both sides an incredible amount of ceasefire violations,” said Alexander Hug, deputy head of the OSCE’s monitoring mission.
Each side blamed the other for the upsurge of violence, but the Ukrainian military says its troops have gained some ground.
Associated Press reporters saw heavy weapons on both sides of the front line, in clear violation of the 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. “We have seen them inside Avdiivka. We have seen them in Yasynovata. We have seen them in Donetsk city.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has cast the outburst of fighting as an argument for continuing Western sanctions imposed on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine. New U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated promises to improve relations with Russia have fuelled concern in Ukraine 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 to secure U.S. and EU support and prevent a thaw in Russia-West ties.
The new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, on Thursday condemned Russia’s “aggressive actions” in eastern Ukraine and warned Moscow that U.S. sanctions imposed after its 2014 annexation of Crimea will remain until the peninsula is returned to Ukraine. But speaking for the first time at the Security Council, she tempered the criticism, saying “we do want to better our relations with Russia.”
Ukrainian U.N. Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko described Haley’s remarks as “extremely positive and extremely encouraging,” telling reporters that the U.S. is “very solidly behind” Ukraine.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, a strong critic of Russia, called on Trump to authorize sending lethal weapons to Ukrainian government forces.
The timing of the increased fighting “is an indication that Vladimir Putin is moving quickly to test you as commander in chief,” McCain said in a letter to Trump.
Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, also voiced concern about the escalation in fighting.
Volunteers register local residents for humanitarian assistance inside a school on Friday in Avdiivka, Ukraine.