Ukraine airport battle intensifies, Russia against peace talks

AFP , Tuesday 20 Jan 2015

File Photo: An aerial footage shot by a drone shows an outline of an airplane in the snow at the Sergey Prokofiev International Airport damaged by shelling during fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces, in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, seen in this still image taken from a January 15, 2015 handout video by Army. (Photo: Reuters)

Russian-backed insurgents on Tuesday assaulted the remnants of a Ukrainian force hanging onto a ruined airport near the rebels' main stronghold as Moscow poured cold water on the prospect of peace talks.

Blasts of incoming and outgoing artillery echoed all night across Donetsk -- a once bustling industrial city but now the crucible of one of Europe's worst humanitarian and diplomatic crises since the Cold War.

Rebel city administration member Ivan Prikhodko said two civilians were killed and eight seriously wounded when a shell hit a bus stop on the war-wrecked northwestern edge of town.

"The bus stop itself and a store nearby have been levelled," Prikhodko told AFP by telephone.

The past week's escalation in fighting and effective shredding of a repeatedly violated September truce has been accompanied by claims from Kiev's pro-Western government that 700 new Russian soldiers have deployed across the border into Ukraine's separatist east.

Russia's defence ministry called the charges "absolute nonsense" and once again denied supporting the rebel cause.

The Kremlin accused Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of rejecting a troop withdrawal proposal submitted last week by Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine meanwhile set in motion a previously-approved fourth wave of military call-ups since the start of hostilities in mid-April.

The 50,000 new volunteers and reservists will be mostly deployed in the war zone in stages stretching over three months. The infusion of additional forces reflects Ukraine's increasingly frantic attempt to defend against what it views as Russian "aggression".

The blame game between Moscow and Kiev is being watched by European leaders who hope to see a quick end to a nine-month conflict that has plunged East-West relations into crisis and sparked a damaging sanctions war.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said the resumption of what Kiev now says is full-scale war means no peace summit is likely any time soon.

A meeting between Putin and Poroshenko that would also include the leaders of France and Germany "can only happen if it is prepared in a way that guarantees its success," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russia's TASS state news agency.

"At the moment, its preparation does not look as likely as it was before Ukraine resumed the hostilities," Peskov said.



The most bitter fighting focused on the international airport that Ukraine spent nearly a billion dollars rebuilding for the Euro 2012 football championship matches staged in Donetsk.

The rebel militias -- armed with heavy artillery guns and Grad systems that fire up to 40 rockets in less than a minute -- have pulverised the once gleaming structure.

They reported capturing the airport on Monday after a weekend assault. Ukraine's army said it was back in control by early Tuesday and was checking reports that a whole floor of the building had collapsed on defenders late Monday.

"The Ukrainian military cleared the area around the airport and destroyed the rebels' fighting positions," military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov told AFP on Tuesday.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic's "defence minister" in turn accused Kiev's units of "shelling residential districts" across the mostly Russian-speaking war zone.

"And it is the civilians who are really suffering -- not the militia troops," Eduard Basurin told the pro-Russian Donetsk News Agency.

Kiev says the rebels endanger civilians by stationing their artillery in residential districts and forcing Ukrainian forces to respond.

Western leaders have struggled to understand why fighting has erupted after a month-long lull that saw Poroshenko offer talks with Putin aimed at ending bloodshed that has claimed more than 4,800 lives.

But the flareup coincided with the warring sides' attempt to establish a demarcation line between their armies that would define the confines of rebel-controlled lands.

Moscow insists that the separatists have the right to Donetsk airport under a prior agreement. Kiev denies ever accepting such terms.

International monitors for their part said combatants must do more to shield civilians.

"We once again call on all parties to refrain from harming civilians and to comply with international humanitarian law," International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Kiev mission leader Michel Masson said.

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