As combat rages, Mariupol residents wary of ceasefire
As the thunder of heavy combat echoed nearby, 25-year-old Yelena said she and her friends were ready to up sticks and flee the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, fearful of a major rebel assault on the city despite hopes of a truce.
"We don't believe (there will be a ceasefire) but we can hope," she told AFP on the eastern edge of the flashpoint city where fresh fighting erupted shortly before talks on the proposed truce open in Belarus.
"I just can't believe how we have found ourselves in this situation, with brothers killing brothers."
Yelena lives in a building overlooking a checkpoint where loyalist Ukrainian fighters with the volunteer Azov unit were battling to repel attacks by pro-Moscow insurgents.
Mariupol has become the latest hotspot in the insurgency as pro-Kremlin rebels wage a counter-offensive that has seen swathes of land across the southeast seized from government forces in just a matter of days.
Residents of the government-held city on the Sea of Azov have been digging in for fear of a major onslaught by the rebels, apparently backed by Russian troops and firepower.
- 'Residents told to go' -
The ceasefire unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin this week calls for both sides to halt "active offensive operations" and for Ukrainian forces to retreat from much of the rebel-held eastern combat zone.
Around 2,600 people have been killed and half a million forced from their homes since mid-April when Ukraine launched a campaign against separatists opposed to Kiev's rule who seized a string of towns and cities across the east.
Yelena said the Ukrainian National Guard had told inhabitants to prepare to leave Mariupol, a city of around 450,000 people, because of the risk of heavy fighting.
"A lot of people already left," said Yulia, the 29-year-old twin sister of Yelena's boyfriend Stas.
"There are only a few families left; you can see people there trying to go," she said, pointing to a nearby family standing by a car.
Ukrainian security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said shelling on the town of Shyrokine east of Mariupol by what he described as Russian artillery had killed three civilians including two children.
In the main rebel-held city of Donetsk directly to the north, AFP journalists also reported sustained shelling overnight coming from the city's airport.
Ukrainian government forces had for weeks been besieging Donetsk, wreaking devastation on the biggest rebel bastion in the mainly Russian-speaking industrial east.
But in the face of the lightning rebel advance, the troops have now pulled back from positions around the city, although they remain in control of the airport.
On central Lenin Square, 25-year-old Pavel said it was vital to halt fighting that has sent tens of thousands in Donetsk fleeing their homes.
"The issue is not who will govern here, but who is going to rebuild the city," said Pavel, who did not want to give his surname.
But Viktor Kosobokov, 72, bluntly told AFP as he swept city streets that he was opposed to a deal with Kiev.
"We cannot talk to this government which has destroyed half of the Donbass," he said, referring to the eastern region encompassing Donetsk and Lugansk.
"We must advance onwards to Kiev so they live through what we have had to endure."
© 2014 AFP