Three rebels dead as clashes intensify near key Ukrainian port
Three pro-Russian separatists have been killed in fresh clashes close to the strategic Ukrainian-held port of Mariupol despite a shaky ceasefire aimed at ending nearly a year of fighting, rebels said on Friday.
"Three fighters were killed and six wounded" in the village of Shyrokyne, the official rebel news agency said on its website.
The separatists accused government troops of flouting a truce signed last month by carrying out 33 attacks over the last 24 hours.
The attacks were mainly focused on Shyrokyne and the airport in the rebel bastion of Donetsk, according to the agency. Donetsk fell under separatist control in January after months of fierce fighting.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said three Ukrainian troops had been injured over the last 24 hours, and claimed separatists had also violated the peace deal by using heavy Grad rockets for "the first time in a month".
In accordance with the Minsk ceasefire deal signed last month, fighting has died down along most of the front line as both parties say they have withdrawn heavy arms to create a buffer zone ranging from 50 kilometres (30 miles) to 140 kilometres, depending on the range of the weapons.
Mariupol is the largest city still under government control in the conflict zone. Many Ukrainians fear the steel-making hub could be the target of a new rebel offensive as it would help form a land bridge between Russian-annexed Crimea and the border.
Situated around 10 kilometres east of the city on the Azov Sea coast, Shyrokyne has been the scene of heavy clashes despite the Minsk ceasefire.
The village has sustained heavy damage, particularly the 700-metre (0.4 mile) "no man's land" that separates both sides, according to an AFP journalist.
Separatists claim to control around 30 percent of the village, and a rebel commander said that fighting with artillery and tanks took place on a daily basis.
"The main road was supposed to be the neutral zone, but they (Ukrainians) bombard it constantly so you can't even attempt to approach it," the commander, named Igor, told AFP.
- Ceasefire 'changed nothing' -
Only six civilians still live among the village's damaged homes, he said.
"Those who remain have nowhere to go and refuse to leave," explained the commander, who goes by the nickname "Karas".
"They live in damaged houses and cellars, where they spend the night."
One of the remaining residents, Lyudmila, told AFP that "nothing had changed since the truce".
"Everything can explode at any moment," said the 45-year-old.
"Last night, we were very afraid. We were in the kitchen and everything began to explode. We had to throw ourselves on the floor."
EU leaders agreed on Thursday to effectively keep economic sanctions against Russia in place until the end of 2015, tying them to full implementation of the Minsk deal.
The sanctions were ramped up after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in July 2014.
They were strengthened again in September after Russia was accused of shipping troops and heavy weapons to Ukrainian territory to halt the advance of Kiev troops, claims that Moscow denies.
© 2015 AFP