Families flee to aid centre as Ukraine battle rages
Freezing families from an eastern Ukraine town battered by an upsurge in fighting between government troops and Russia-backed rebels flocked to a humanitarian aid centre yesterday to receive food and warm up.
Heavy fighting around government-held Avdiivka, just north of the rebel-stronghold city of Donetsk, began over the weekend and persisted yesterday. Donetsk city was also hit. At least 10 people have been killed since Monday and dozens wounded.
The Ukrainian government and the rebels have blamed each other for the eruption of hostilities, the worst in months. Both sides have moved heavy artillery, rockets and tanks close to the front line in clear violation of a peace deal struck two years ago.
An urgent meeting of the so-called Contact Group, which brings together representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the rebels, along with the Organisation for the Security and Co-operation in Europe, ended yesterday in Minsk, Belarus. The group called for the opposing sides to cease fire and urged them to pull back their heavy weapons by the end of the week.
Separatist rebels have been fighting government troops and volunteer brigades in eastern Ukraine since April 2014 in clashes that have killed more than 9,700 people. The peace deal signed in February 2015 called for a ceasefire, for heavy weapons to be pulled back from the front lines and for a political resolution of the conflict. The agreement has been observed only fitfully, and skirmishes and artillery fire have persisted.
What sparked the recent escalation is unclear, although Ukraine's military has acknowledged that its troops have gained some ground around Avdiivka.
"Step by step, metre by metre, our boys have heroically moved forward," Ukraine's deputy defence minister Ihor Pavlovsky told reporters in Kiev yesterday.
"The entire Donbass is our territory," he added, referring to the rebel-controlled areas.
The fighting has caused power outages amidst a strong cold snap, with temperatures in Avdiivka as low as minus 18C. Hundreds of city residents streamed to a stadium where aid agencies distributed food, and to warming stations.
Each warring party could find negotiation benefits in the resumption of hostilities. The Ukrainian government, concerned that the new US administration might take a comparatively soft line on Russia, could point to the escalation as evidence that Russia cannot be trusted. That prospect was acknowledged by president Vladimir Putin's foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov. "Kiev is trying to use the fighting it provoked itself as a pretext to refuse to observe the Minsk agreement and blame Russia," he said.