Civilians killed in Ukraine amid fears for fragile ceasefire
Several civilians were killed by shelling in eastern Ukraine on Sunday night, amid a surge in violence that has raised fears of a return to full-scale hostilities between government forces and Russian-backed separatists.
The violence came as both sides accused one another of using high-calibre artillery and multiple rocket launchers banned under the February Minsk ceasefire agreement, and a senior separatist leader warned that the region is "one step away from a return to full-scale military action".
Denis Pushilin, the chief negotiator at the Minsk contact-group for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, called on Sunday called for the leaders of the Normandy Quartet of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany to act to avert a return to all-out war.
"I again call on the leaders of the Normandy format to immediately intervene, otherwise the situation will result in full-scale military action," he said.
The latest fighting concentrated on the Ukrainian-held city of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, and the separatist-held town of Horlivka, north east of Donetsk.
The Ukrainian military said in a statement yesterday morning that three civilians were killed when overnight separatist shelling struck the village of Sartana, on the north-east edge of Mariupol.
Meanwhile, the separatist news website DAN said three people were killed and four wounded by government shelling Horlivka.
"They were using heavy weapons. We have three men dead. Another four have various injuries," the site quoted the mayor of the town as saying.
The separatist news service later added that two civilians were killed in shelling of the northern and western districts of Donetsk, the de facto capital of separatist-held Ukraine.
The reports could not immediately be confirmed.
At least 6,500 people have been killed since the war broke out in April last year. A ceasefire agreement signed in Minsk in February resulted in a pull-back of heavy weapons and slowed, but never entirely stopped, the fighting.
Last week, the Ukrainian military said its forces repelled a large separatist attack on Starohnativka, a village 50km north of Mariupol, prompting Oleksandr Turchynov, the head of the country's security and defence council, to warn of an imminent separatist offensive.
Starohnativka is significant because it shields the mostly government-controlled motorway between Donetsk and Mariupol. Ukrainian commanders fear the separatists may move to seize the road as a prelude to an assault on Mariupol itself.
Separatist spokesmen have called the Ukrainian claims "a lie", and in turn accused Ukraine of preparing for its own offensive in coming weeks.