Worst fight­ing in east Ukraine since 2015; 33 dead this week as res­i­den­tial area hit

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - INNA VARENYTSIA

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.

BREN­DAN HOFF­MAN, GETTY IM­AGES

Vol­un­teers reg­is­ter lo­cal res­i­dents for hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance in­side a school on Fri­day in Avdi­ivka, Ukraine.

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