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Prisoners escape shelled jail in east Ukraine

Scores of panicked inmates escaped when shells rained down on a high-security prison in eastern Ukraine during heavy fighting between government forces and pro-Moscow rebels, authorities said Monday.

Ukraine’s military meanwhile reported six soldiers killed in the last 24 hours as its forces try to retake the main separatist bastions of Donetsk and Lugansk, bringing Kiev’s death toll to 568 troops in four months of fighting.

Late Sunday, a high-security prison in a western district of the city was struck by mortar fire, allowing 106 inmates to escape, prison authorities said.

“About 100 convicts escaped in a panic,” the penitentiary service said in a statement.

One inmate was killed and five were injured, while two prison officials were also wounded, the authorities said. By Monday morning, 34 of the inmates had been returned to the prison, they added.

An AFP correspondent at the scene found the prison gates open and rebel gunmen patrolling the area. A rebel spokesman said they had come to secure the location over fears that escaped prisoners could try to obtain arms.

Moscow meanwhile fuelled fears it could be planning to invade eastern Ukraine by repeating calls for sending aid to the region.

The United States and other countries — which have accused Moscow of supplying weapons to the rebels — have warned that Russia may send troops into Ukraine in the guise of a “humanitarian” mission.

Several rebel-held cities in the region have warned of an impending humanitarian catastrophe, with no power or running water and food supplies running low.

An AFP correspondent reported sporadic shelling overnight in the one-million strong city of Donetsk as government troops now completely surround the rebel forces hunkered down there.

The mining hub, once known for its leafy streets, has been pummelled by heavy fire for days, leaving a growing number of civilian casualties as homes and hospitals have been hit.

In the Kievsky district north of the city centre, AFP saw a former army recruitment centre, and office and private house that were damaged in repeated shelling Sunday.

“There’s never been any rebels here. I don’t understand why they are firing and bombing here,” said Nikolai, a local resident.

– ‘Indispensable’ aid –

Late Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a renewed call for a ceasefire in order to bring aid to the population of east Ukraine.

A truce was “not only possible but indispensable,” he said, adding that Moscow was already in talks with Kiev, the Red Cross and UN aid organisations to organise such a mission.

Local authorities said Monday that Lugansk, the rebels’ second largest city, was teetering “on the edge of survival”, with no power and running water for over a week, and fuel, food and medicines also short.

NATO says the Kremlin has massed 20,000 troops at the border and Ukrainian forces say they have repeatedly come under fire from Russian territory.

Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Kiev’s National Security and Defence Council, complained Monday that five Russian drones had violated Ukrainian airspace over the past day.

Tensions between the West and Moscow have soared to their highest point since the Cold War over the crisis in Ukraine.

Over the weekend, US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that any unilateral move by Russia into Ukraine would be considered “illegal” and “unacceptable”.

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko meanwhile said he was ready to accept a humanitarian mission for Lugansk but only if it is “an international one without any military escort.”

Overall the United Nation says more than 1,300 people have lost their lives since fighting erupted in April, while over 285,000 people have fled their homes in the east.