UN condemns Ukraine civilian deaths as death toll rises to 5,350
The United Nations has raised the death toll from fighting in eastern Ukraine to more than 5,350 people and is condemning the high number of civilians killed in indiscriminate shelling.
Hostilities between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian troops resumed with a vengeance in January after a month of relative calm.
The UN Human Rights office said at least 5,358 people have been killed since the fighting began in April, including at least 224 civilians in the past three weeks alone.
The agency urged both sides to make the protection of civilians an "utmost priority".
Rebels in the separatist stronghold of Donetsk said artillery fire had killed at least eight people and wounded 22 others in the past day.
Donetsk separatist spokesman Eduard Basurin told the rebel website Novorossiya that five people were killed in shelling overnight and three on Monday. City Hall said artillery fire had damaged homes in four districts.
The rebels often set up firing positions on government troops in residential areas in Donetsk, attracting return fire.
The rebels' main offensive is now directed at Debaltseve, a railway junction once populated by 25,000 people that lies between the rebel-held cities of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Almost 2,000 residents have fled in the past few days alone.
Separatists last week captured the town of Vuhlehirsk, crucial for the advance on Debaltseve. Rebel leaders insist, however, they are not planning to storm Debaltseve itself because of potential for civilian casualties.
In a sign of the volatile situation on the ground, Donetsk rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko was quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency as saying his fighters were helping to evacuate Vuhlehirsk because of the heavy fighting.
Ukraine accuses Russia of supporting the rebels, a charge that Russia denies. But western military experts say the sheer amount of heavy weapons in rebel hands belies that denial, and the US and European Union have placed economic sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine.