Seaside refuge becomes Ukraine's new front

26th August 2014, Comments 0 comments

When 15-year-old Daniil's family packed up their belongings in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk in May and moved to the coast of Ukraine's Azov Sea to get away from the fighting, they thought they were safe.

Now the war between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces has caught up with them, turning their refuge in government-held territory into a "new front" of Ukraine's brutal conflict over the past few days.

"The shelling started here, and my mother got scared," the teenage boy said, as his family readied to leave their refuge in Novoazovsk, a coastal town around 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Donetsk.

"I have a little brother and a grandmother. We decided to take them and go."

The small working-class town of Novoazovsk is only 12 kilometres from the frontier with Russia's Rostov region, and Kiev has blamed Russia for sending armoured convoys across the border.

On Tuesday, the atmosphere of this placid town, which has been a haven for up to 10,000 people displaced from Donetsk, was rocked by the booms of shelling.

Bus tickets out to Mariupol, a large industrial city to the west -- and even back to Donetsk -- are sold out for the next two days, one resident told AFP.

Cars with families were seen driving out of town with "children" signs hastily taped to their back windows.

In a local hospital, shards of glass remained scattered across beds after a shell damaged the building, injuring a woman.

"There were three shells, one exploded here. A woman was hurt, she was cleaning outside," 33-year-old local Sergei said.

"She's in the hospital now, one of her legs has been amputated, and she'll likely lose the other one too," he said.

- 'New front' -

Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council had earlier said the clashes near the Azov Sea coast were attempts to open a "new front of the armed conflict" in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have been making advances on rebel positions to the north.

In Mariupol, the industrial city of 500,000 west of Novoazovsk, pitched battles had killed over a dozen people in May and a police station was torched, but the army ousted the rebels soon after.

The burnt-out police station Tuesday stood as reminder of the clashes, with Ukrainian blue and yellow flags stained with red paint, but the atmosphere was otherwise peaceful in the city, which has served as the seat of the pro-Kiev authorities of the Donetsk region.

In Novoazovsk, administration chief Oleg Sidorenko told AFP that attacks on government positions near the town have been going on for some time, and the National Guard posted in the area has now dug trenches.

"Armed clashes have been going on for several days," he told AFP. "It started with firing on National Guard positions from Grad rocket and mortar launchers."

As shelling intensified outside, Sidorenko, one of three employees working Tuesday in the empty administration building, took AFP journalists into the safety of a basement to wait out the attack and offered to calm nerves with a whisky.

© 2014 AFP

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