Eastern Ukraine Rocked by Fighting Between Government Troops and Russia-Backed Rebels

(AVDIIVKA, Ukraine) — Heavy artillery and rockets hit residential areas in eastern Ukraine Tuesday amid a new outburst of fighting between government troops and Russia-backed separatist rebels, leaving at least eight people dead and dozens injured.

Salvos of heavy-caliber artillery were heard throughout the night and late morning in Avdiivka, a town on the northern outskirts of the separatist stronghold of Donetsk where residents have been without electricity for days. In Donetsk, at least one civilian was killed by shrapnel.

Fighting around Avdiivka has cut water and power supplies for most of the town and it was left without heating in the dead of winter. Temperatures plunged to minus 18 Celsius (0 F) on Tuesday morning.

The warring sides blamed each other for the spike in hostilities, the worst in months. The Ukrainian government was considering evacuating 12,000 residents from Avdiivka, Pavlo Zhebrivsky, head of the administration in charge of the government-controlled parts of the Donetsk region, said on Facebook.

With no signs of an immediate evacuation in sight, some residents went to a local bus station, hoping to get away from the heavy shelling.

Volodymyr Bassak, 67, was waiting to catch a bus Tuesday morning to a city some 200 kilometers (125 miles) north because of the lack of heat in his home.

“The house was shaking — (shelling) was really intense at about four in the morning,” Bassak said as he brushed tears from his eyes. “There were flames along the front line.”

Valery Tretyakov said he was having tea at home in Donetsk when he heard a big explosion and the sound of shattered glass. He rushed into the bedroom and saw his wife bleeding from a shrapnel wound to her neck that proved fatal.

“It was impossible to stop bleeding,” Tretyakov said. “One minute and that’s all.”

The rebels’ Donetsk News Agency also reported that four fighters died and seven were injured overnight along with three civilians.

Oleksandr Turchynov, chairman of the Ukrainian Security and Defense Council, said on Tuesday that shelling around Avdiivka killed at least three government troops and injured 24 more. Another seven soldiers were killed on Sunday and Monday, the government said.

The press office of the Ukrainian military operation in the east reported an unspecified number of civilian casualties. It said the rebels turned down the government’s offer for a cease-fire to allow the dead and wounded to be moved.

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, accused the Ukrainian government of provoking the hostilities to distract public attention from domestic issues.

Peskov told reporters in Moscow the Kremlin has “reliable information” that Ukrainian volunteer battalions crossed the front line Monday night and tried to capture rebel-controlled territory.

Kiev is worried that Donald Trump’s administration could ease some sanctions on Russia the U.S. imposed for the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for the insurgency in the east.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Tuesday that the escalation of hostilities proves the sanctions must be kept in place “to bring the aggressor to justice.”

Peskov, in turn, said that Kiev’s “aggressive actions” threaten to derail a 2015 Ukraine peace deal brokered by France and Germany. The agreement obliging the warring sides to hold fire and pull back heavy weaponry has been regularly violated.

The U.S. State Department voiced concern about the spike in fighting and on Tuesday reaffirmed Washington’s support for the full implementation of the peace deal.

“To avert a larger humanitarian crisis, we call for an immediate, sustained cease-fire and full and unfettered access for OSCE monitors,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement, referring to an observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The European Union also has expressed its worry over the renewed fighting and called on both sides to pull back immediately to allow for the urgent repair of critical infrastructure.

An escalation in the east could be beneficial to both the separatists and the Ukrainian government, Kiev-based independent political analyst Vadim Karasyov said.

“Kiev is eager to win support of the new Trump administration, and for this they need to show that separatists and the Kremlin are derailing the peace accords,” he said. “For the Kremlin, it’s important to show that it holds war and peace in its hands; if the new U.S. administration wants peace in Ukraine, it needs to offer something in return.”

Rebels in Donetsk said an electricity sub-station was damaged in shelling, cutting power to the Zasyadko coal mine. The mine is notorious for poor safety standards; a methane blast there killed 33 people in 2015.

With elevators not working, the miners were trapped underground for several hours before local authorities found backup generators outside the mine. By late afternoon on Tuesday, all 207 men were able to get out.

The director of Avdiivka’s giant coking plant said on Monday that preparations were being made to stop production, something rarely done throughout the conflict that has claimed more than 9,700 lives since it began in 2014.

The coking plant, which switched to a natural gas supply after power was cut off on Tuesday, was providing some heating to homes in the town even though its gas reserves were are running low, director Musa Magomedov told The Associated Press.

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