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Friday 23 February 2018

Ukraine civilian death toll rises

An apartment building shows major damage after shelling in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. (AP)
An apartment building shows major damage after shelling in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. (AP)

At least 22 civilians have been killed by shelling in two conflict-stricken cities in eastern Ukraine, local authorities said.

The use of unguided rockets in fighting between government forces and pro-Russian separatist rebels has been taking a noticeably heavier toll in recent weeks and has been criticised by rights groups.

With turmoil raging across a wide part of the region, international investigators were again prevented from visiting the site of the Malaysia Airlines jet shot down earlier this month.

City hall in Luhansk, which is controlled by separatist rebels, said that five people were killed when an old people's home was struck by artillery fire. Russian television showed images of bodies in wheelchairs covered with blankets.

Ukraine security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said that rebels had blocked the railway line out of Luhansk, barring residents from leaving the city.

Mr Lysenko also accused separatist fighters of using children as human shields and stopping cars from leaving Luhansk.

In Horlivka, a city besieged by government troops, the mayor's office reported 17 people, including three children, dying as a result of shelling.

The mayor's office said there had been major damage to many homes and government offices in the centre of the city. It also said the top floor of a school was destroyed as a result of a direct hit from a shell.

Rebels accuse the government of indiscriminately using heavy artillery against residential neighbourhoods in areas under their control.

A UN monitoring mission in Ukraine said there has been an alarming build up of heavy weaponry in civilian areas of Donetsk and Luhansk - including artillery, tanks, rockets and missiles that are being used to inflict increasing casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.

The UN said in a report this week that use of such weaponry could amount to a violation of international humanitarian law.

"There is an increase in the use of heavy weaponry in areas that are basically surrounded by public buildings," said Gianni Magazzeni, head of the UN office's branch that oversees Ukraine. "All international law needs to be applied and fully respected."

Ukraine's government has stated that it has banned the use of artillery in heavy residential areas and in turn accuses separatists of targeting civilians in an effort to discredit the army.

The overall death toll has been steadily rising. The UN has said that at least 1,129 people were killed between mid-April, when fighting began, and July 26.

Ukrainian troops have for several days encroached on the outskirts of Horlivka, which is just north of the regional centre and the main rebel stronghold, Donetsk.

Heavy fighting has also spread to other areas in the region, including towns not far from the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines plane.

A team of Dutch and Australian police officers and forensic experts is currently stationed in Donetsk in the hope of travelling to the fields where the Boeing 777 came down.

For the third day running, the delegation has been forced to cancel plans to travel to the area of the wreckage.

There were also signs of the conflict spreading into Donetsk, which had so far only seen serious fighting only on its fringes.

A blast heard in the city centre prompted members of the international police team sitting in their hotel restaurant to quickly seek shelter inside the building.

Press Association

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