Russia, Ukraine trade blame for bloody bus attack

14th January 2015, Comments 0 comments

The death toll from a stray rocket that hit a Ukrainian bus climbed to 12 on Wednesday as Moscow and Kiev traded blame for the separatist war's bloodiest incident since a September truce.

The long-range Grad rocket exploded on Tuesday near a commuter bus travelling towards the pro-Russian rebel stronghold of Donetsk from Ukraine's southeast coast.

Images of the yellow bus's shattered frame standing in a field of bloodied snow underscored how distant a truce in the nine-month uprising remains after the death of 4,700 people and effective destruction of Ukraine's industrial base.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told the nation the rocket was fired by rebels while responsibility rested on "those who stand behind them -- those whose hand feeds them and arms them, drills them and inspires them to commit bloody crimes."

The transparent reference to Moscow -- charges President Vladimir Putin rejects -- was followed by Kiev claims of the fighters employing a massive 30-barrel flamethrower that is used by Russia but not Ukraine.

The 220-millimetre-calibre TOS-1 was deployed by the Soviet army in Afghanistan and Russian forces during their second campaign in Chechnya. Kiev said insurgents used it for the first time overnight to attack the eastern village of Vesele.

This type of system "only exists in the operational service of the Russian army. It is not operated by us," Ukrainian defence ministry spokeswoman Viktoria Kushnir told AFP.

- 'Undermines peace efforts' -

Russia issued no immediate comment. But the foreign ministry's rights envoy called the bus incident "another crime of the Kiev military".

"We are outraged," Konstantin Dolgov told the TASS new agency. "This undermines all peace settlement efforts."

The insurgents and Kiev frequently blame each other for stray rocket and artillery fire that kills and wounds civilians on an almost daily basis.

The Donetsk city administration said one more resident was killed and another injured in overnight shelling around a city that stands abandoned by half of its one million residents.

Kiev said a two-year-old girl also died of head wounds suffered in shelling south of Donetsk. One Ukrainian soldier was reported killed and 17 more wounded in the past day of fighting.

The UN Security Council adopted a unanimous statement backed by Russia calling for an investigation and assigning no blame for the attack.

But the White House said US Vice President Joe Biden expressed "regret at the increasing number of ceasefire violations by Russia's proxies" in a call Tuesday to Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

- NATO weapons -

Tuesday's incident was the biggest single loss of civilian life since the warring sides signed a September 5 ceasefire that only partially stemmed the fighting and did little to resolve the insurgents' independence claims.

The rocket strike also damaged Poroshenko's efforts to set up a peace summit where Putin could personally sign a truce under which the Kremlin assumes responsibility for disarming the militias and dispelling their independence claims.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- the West's main mediator in Europe's deadliest conflict since the Balkan wars of the 1990s -- argues that such a meeting would be premature with violence still raging.

Putin has argued that the revolt was a natural response by ethnic Russians to their "persecution" by the more nationalist leaders who ousted a Moscow-backed administration in Kiev in February last year.

Ukraine has since signed a landmark EU pact whose rejection by the old regime sparked protests that led to its downfall.

Kiev now also plans to apply for NATO membership -- a defensive shift that the Kremlin views as both confrontational and a global security threat.

A new NATO delegation arrived in Ukraine on Wednesday for a week-long visit focused on "military and technological cooperation".

The vague diplomatic term usually refers to arms deliveries. Kiev defence officials said the NATO delegation would visit Ukraine's main arms manufacturer and the Antonov aviation plant.

© 2015 AFP

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