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Ukraine appeals for help against Russia as fighting flares

By AFP - Feb 02,2017 - Last updated at Feb 02,2017

Tanks are seen in the government-held industrial town of Avdiivka, Ukraine, on Thursday (Reuters photo)

AVDIIVKA, Ukraine — Ukraine's president appealed for more global pressure against Russia on Thursday as Moscow-backed rebels and government forces clashed around a frontline town for a fifth day in a surge of fighting that has claimed a reported 21 lives.

The sworn foes have been exchanging mortar and rocket fire around the flashpoint eastern town of Avdiivka that sits just north of the Russian-backed rebels' de facto capital of Donetsk.

The outburst of violence since Sunday have reignited fears of full-scale warfare returning to Ukraine after a relative lull in 33 months of bloodshed in the European Union's backyard.

The Avdiivka shelling left more than 20,000 people without heat or water in freezing winter weather and authorities scrambling to provide relief.

The escalation in fighting has sharpened attention on a conflict that had slipped from recent focus despite claiming the lives of more than 10,000 people.

The fresh bloodshed comes at a potential watershed moment for Ukraine as it seeks to maintain US support despite President Donald Trump's bid to mend ties with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Moscow and Kiev have traded blame over who started the latest violence but AFP reporters witnessed the rebels on the attack.

"The Russian fighters are attacking Avdiivka, not giving the workers a chance to restore power," Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement.

"The world should be more actively putting pressure on Russia in order to end the shelling."

 Kiev worries that Putin is trying to stamp his authority on eastern Ukraine to give him leverage over Trump on other global issues.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg did not blame Russia directly but said that Moscow had "considerable influence" over the militia forces now on the attack.

Moscow denies accusations from Kiev and its allies that it sparked the war in 2014 and has sent in troops to keep Ukraine under its thumb after its tilt towards the West. 

 

Mortars and gruel 

 

Thursday morning began with echoes of rocket fire on the outskirts of the blue-collar town and the death of a woman in a shelling attack.

The insurgents also said one more of their fighters was killed in the clashes. 

"There is no lighting in the Avdiivka and we are keeping the local heating plant at the lowest temperature possible that would avoid its pipes from freezing," the Ukrainian army's 72 brigade Spokeswoman Olena Mokrynchuk told AFP.

Army officers were distributing gruel and tea to hundreds of people in makeshift street kitchens as the echoes of exploding shells shattered the air.

They also set up seven camps where people could warm up from winter weather that sees temperatures fall to -20oC at night.

"Right now we are making buckwheat and millet porridge," said a 40-year-old serviceman who gave his name only as Taras.

"We hope to get some canned meat in the evening," he told AFP.

The industrial town of Avdiivka was seized by separatists when the conflict started in April 2014 after the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russian leader but was recaptured by Kiev several months later.

Ukraine has a large military presence nearby and in surrounding towns that are one the main hotspots of the fighting. 

The town has a giant coke plant that produces natural gas for generating heat and electricity and also has important roads used by the separatist fighters to move around machinery and weapons.

Moscow and Kiev agreed on Wednesday to promote a new truce that would also open escape routes out of the devastated town.

But coke plant spokesman Dmytro Murashko told AFP that those trying to leave Avdiivka fell under heavy shelling.

"They had to return," said Murashko. "The situation here is at a stalemate. Tens of thousands of people are being held hostage."

 A Ukrainian fighter from Kiev who only gave his nom de guerre — “The Zoo” — said he was certain that Russian forces were leading the offensive.

 

"No one else could coordinate this so well," he told AFP.

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