Wednesday 21 March 2018

Ukraine rebels 'ready for truce'

An armed Ukrainian serviceman guards a checkpoint near the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve, Donetsk Region
An armed Ukrainian serviceman guards a checkpoint near the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve, Donetsk Region
Barricades set on fire by protesters burn at Independence Square in Kiev yesterday.
A convoy of military armoured vehicles near a checkpoint in Donetsk region
A Ukrainian serviceman uses a pair of binoculars as he guards a checkpoint near the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve
A Ukrainian serviceman checks his weapon as a fellow soldier rests on a bed near the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve, Donetsk Region
An armed pro-Russian separatist stands in front of damaged buildings following what locals say was shelling by Ukrainian forces in Donetsk
Local residents cry and hug each other as they sit in a hospital basement being used as a bomb-shelter after shelling, in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian troops have surrounded the rebel-held city of Donetsk and the insurgents are willing to accept a ceasefire to stave off a humanitarian catastrophe, a top rebel leader has announced.

Conditions in Donetsk, the largest rebel stronghold in eastern Ukraine, were clearly deteriorating. As the thunder of artillery reverberated, the streets of the city, home to nearly one million people before 300,000 fled the conflict, were nearly empty of cars and pedestrians. Most stores were closed.

There was no immediate government response to the statement from Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the so-called prime minister of the Donetsk separatists, or to reports that Donetsk was surrounded. Mr Zakharchenko's comments could be aimed at increasing international pressure to allow in a Russian mission.

Russia, which the Ukrainian government in Kiev and Western countries allege is supporting the rebels, has called repeatedly for a humanitarian mission into eastern Ukraine. But Kiev and the West suggest that could be just a pretext to send Russian forces into the region - and say some 20,000 Russian troops are just across the border.

"The situation is getting worse with every hour," said Donetsk city council spokesman Maxim Rovinsky.

At least one person was killed and 18 wounded in shelling on Saturday that hit about 30 apartment blocks in Donetsk, he said, adding that about 2,000 residential buildings had no electricity.

Explosions were also heard on the northern outskirts near Donetsk's airport.

Ukrainian officials have consistently denied that their forces are shelling civilians, but the rebels dismiss that and claim the government is aiming to blame the insurgents for the increasing death and destruction in the region. Ukraine says the rebels have deliberately put rocket launchers in populated areas.

Mr Zakharchenko's statement that the city was surrounded came hours after the rebels' top commander said Ukrainian forces had seized a key town, Krasnyi Luch, effectively cutting off Donetsk and nearby territory from the rest of the rebel-held east.

The Ukrainian military did not confirm that Krasnyi Luch was under government control.

Concerns were also rising about a possible humanitarian catastrophe in the rebel's second-largest city of Luhansk, where fighting has been heavier and more prolonged. A map released by the Ukrainian military shows Ukrainian forces near the outskirts of Luhansk on three sides, with an opening to other rebel-held territory only to the south.

Russian news agencies quoted Luhansk authorities as saying that the city has been without water and electricity for a week and most of its stores were closed.

The deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, Valeriy Chalyi, claimed that Russian forces wanted to enter Ukraine under the guise of a humanitarian mission but Ukraine had blocked the move.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the claim, saying there was "no attempt" by Russian soldiers to enter the country.

Press Association

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