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Ukrainian servicemen stand guard on a street near the burning building after a shelling by pro-Russian rebels of a residential sector in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine (REUTERS/Nikolai Ryabchenko)

Ukrainian servicemen stand guard on a street near the burning building after a shelling by pro-Russian rebels of a residential sector in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine (REUTERS/Nikolai Ryabchenko)

REUTERS

People hold placards with the slogan "I am Bosse" during a mourning ceremony for victims killed in the shelling of a bus stop, in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine (REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko)

People hold placards with the slogan "I am Bosse" during a mourning ceremony for victims killed in the shelling of a bus stop, in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine (REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko)

REUTERS

A man walks past a burnt-out vehicle after a shelling by pro-Russian rebels of a residential sector in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine (REUTERS/Stringer)

A man walks past a burnt-out vehicle after a shelling by pro-Russian rebels of a residential sector in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine (REUTERS/Stringer)

REUTERS

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Ukrainian servicemen stand guard on a street near the burning building after a shelling by pro-Russian rebels of a residential sector in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine (REUTERS/Nikolai Ryabchenko)

Vadim Ozirny is hoping for reinforcements. The 46-year-old Ukrainian tank commander says politicians might yet stop the conflict gripping the east of his country, but supplies of arms from the West would force a quicker result.

"Can we win this war? I don't know. This is not toys; it's not players on a football field. Give me some British Challengers or German Leopards and the Russians will be afraid to come out against us."

Captain Ozirny is in charge of 33 men and 10 tanks, mostly ageing Soviet T-64s. Last week, he and his company were caught in the thick of battle on the north-west rim of Donetsk, the city that is the stronghold of pro-Russian separatists.

The war in eastern Ukraine is escalating after months of skirmishes.

Yesterday,at least 30 people - including a 15-year old girl and a five-year old boy - were killed when Grad rockets fell on a neighbourhood of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.

Government forces are struggling to resist a rebel offensive after the separatists were apparently engorged by fresh supplies of weapons and men from Russia. On Friday, the rebels' leader announced he was abandoning peace talks and launching a new multi-pronged attack against Ukrainian government troops.

"Attempts to talk about a ceasefire will no longer be undertaken by our side," said Alexander Zakharchenko, who is head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.

Mr Zakharchenko said rebel militia were on the advance in three directions in Donetsk region and pushing forward in two other areas in the Luhansk region.

Stepan Poltorak, Ukraine's defence minister, said yesterday: "In the last 24 hours the situation has worsened along the whole front: from Lugansk region to Mariupol, illegal armed groups are on the attack everywhere."

More than 5,000 people have died since the revolt in eastern Ukraine broke out in April. After Ukrainian soldiers pushed back the rebels into a small corner of south-eastern Ukraine last summer, a Russian military incursion across the countries' common border helped the separatists regain some territory in September. Infantry clashes and frequent exchanges of shelling have continued ever since.

Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko, has claimed that Russia had up to 9,000 men in the conflict zone - something Moscow denies - and Kiev announced it was calling up 50,000 reservists to combat "Russian aggression".

Capt Ozirny, whose call sign is Yatagan (a Turkish sabre), is convinced his opponent is Russia. "That country is fighting with mine," he said. "We can tell by the artillery fire; it's trained Russian specialists firing at us, people who understand the science of it, not some amateur bandits."

Moscow has also sent tanks into the conflict, he alleged. "We've seen one T-90, which only Russia has, and heard the engines of many T-72s, which couldn't be trophies taken from us because we have very few in service."

We spoke to the captain and his men in Zhelanne, a village a few miles behind the front line. The men described days of intense fighting. Their forward base at a house in Tonenkoye village was hit while they were out on January 17 by a shell that destroyed the tanks' target control computer, burnt clothes and melted tins of meat.

The company has seen its fiercest action in the past fortnight near and at Donetsk Airport, which has became emblematic of the futility of the war. Built at a cost of about €720m for the Euro 2012 football tournament, it now stand in ruins.

Ukrainian troops, known as "cyborgs" for their tenacity, were forced to leave the building last week after months of fighting against militia led by "Motorola" and "Givi", two commanders lionised by the separatists. The withdrawal was a blow for Kiev, and a propaganda victory for pro-rebel bloggers, who circulated pictures of dead "cyborgs" sprawled in the rubble.

Sixteen Ukrainian combatants were reportedly taken prisoner and many more died in the final attack by the rebels. "The numbers are very high but they're being suppressed in order to avoid panic," said one Ukrainian activist.

© Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk