Ukraine frontline city on edge after night of violence

7th September 2014, Comments 0 comments

It didn't take long for the guns to roar into action again on the edge of the Ukrainian flashpoint city of Mariupol, with the ink barely dry on a shaky truce plan between the government and rebel forces.

Terrified residents were abruptly woken late Saturday when pro-Russian insurgents began bombarding a government-held checkpoint on the eastern rim of the coastal city.

"It was chaos," recounted 34-year-old Vasyl as he swept up the remnants of mortar shells littering the ground outside the bus station.

"They started firing heavily here and in another area from around 10:30 pm," the unemployed man told AFP. "Now everyone is starting to flee."

Mariupol city hall said one woman had been killed -- the first reported death since the ceasefire was signed on Friday -- and three other people wounded in the overnight shelling.

The situation was calm on Sunday, but the wreckage of the night's violence remained.

A truck was ablaze on a road near the checkpoint, several buildings damaged, their windows shattered, and a petrol station left almost in ruins, AFP correspondents said.

Many locals, on bicycles or on foot, came to inspect the damage, while passengers peered out from a passing bus.

One 46-year-old Mariupol resident who gave her name only as Victoria said she had heard explosions and the sound of shells roaring overhead through the night.

"I'm frightened. I want peace but I think this ceasefire is finished, this is the third night we haven't been able to sleep."

- 'Ready to defend city' -

Government-held Mariupol has been bracing for an all-out rebel onslaught since the insurgents launched a dramatic counter-offensive in late August, reportedly helped by large numbers of Russian troops and heavy weapons secretly shipped across the border.

The advance -- apparently aimed at securing a land corridor between the Russian border and the annexed Crimean peninsula -- took Kiev by surprise after weeks of steady gains by Ukrainian forces.

Mariupol, with a population of around 450,000, is a key industrial port and heavy engineering centre on the Sea of Azov, around 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the Russian border.

"The people of Mariupol don't believe there will be a real halt in the fighting," said Denis Gavrilov, who organises civil defence courses for the local population.

"Obviously we support this initiative (the truce plan) but people are still getting ready to defend their city and their lives."

On Sunday, the checkpoint attacked by the rebels was still under the control of pro-Kiev forces, with about 20 men on guard near three tanks.

"You see what type of ceasefire there is on the Russian side," said Pasha, a fighter with a pro-Kiev volunteer battalion at the barricades.

"Who knows what's going to happen today."


© 2014 AFP

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