Street battles rage in Ukraine as 15 bodies found
FIFTEEN bodies have been recovered from the wreckage of a shelled refugee convoy, the Ukrainian military said yesterday, as its forces engaged in street battles in the heart of a rebel-held city nearby.
Kiev claimed on Monday that pro-Russian rebels fired Grad rockets and mortars at a column of vehicles carrying refugees out of the war zone in eastern Ukraine, killing dozens of people, including women and children.
The separatists denied any involvement.
"By 7pm last night we retrieved 15 bodies. . . The search continued into the night and is continuing today," Andriy Lysenko, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said. He later said the search had been suspended because of fighting in the area.
Meanwhile, Kiev said that its troops had pushed into central Luhansk, the second-biggest city controlled by the rebels after Donetsk, which is also under siege.
The attack on the refugee column, in which many victims were said to have burned alive in their vehicles, allegedly took place between the villages of Khryashchuvatye and Novosvitlivka, about eight miles south-east of Luhansk.
Ukraine said the refugees had hung white flags from the vehicles. But the column was partly made up of military trucks provided by the Ukrainian army, which may have made it a target.
There has been no independent confirmation of the incident, and no photographs or video have emerged.
But Ukraine's ministry of defence yesterday released a video which it said featured survivors.
One middle-aged man in the video said soldiers were helping people to flee the area when a mortar shell fell on a vehicle and "cut it in half".
Separately yesterday, Russia and Ukraine said their respective presidents would meet together with top European Union officials in Belarus's capital of Minsk next Tuesday to discuss their confrontation over Ukraine, which has plunged relations into an all-time low.
The meeting will put Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko in the same room for the first time since a passing encounter in France in June, though Ukrainian officials were at pains to say no face-to-face meeting there between the two men was planned as yet.
Nonetheless, with the Ukrainian military offensive making inroads against pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian officials were upbeat that the Minsk meeting could be a diplomatic opportunity for Kiev and provide a forum for bringing fresh diplomatic pressure to bear on Mr Putin to end Moscow's support for the rebels.
"Today a clear diplomatic roadmap is taking shape. We can come up with new approaches that will allow us to talk about a move from war to peace," Valery Chaly, Mr Poroshenko's top foreign policy aide, said.
Mr Putin will be accompanied at the talks by Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko and Kazkahstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose countries belong to the Russia-led Customs Union.