DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — Air strikes and artillery fire between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian troops in the eastern city of Donetsk have brought the violence closer than ever to the city center, as Kiev’s forces move in on the rebel stronghold.
With Ukrainian troops encircling Donetsk, Western leaders have accused Russia of building up forces along the border in what some fear may preface an intervention. On Wednesday, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said he believed that the “the threat of a direct intervention (by Russia) is definitely greater than it was a few days ago, or two weeks ago.”
Russia has repeatedly denied having such intentions and rejected Ukrainian and Western claims of a military buildup on the border.
President Vladimir Putin has resisted mounting pressure from Russian nationalists to send the army in to back the mutiny in eastern Ukraine. Even though the U.S. and NATO would be unlikely to respond militarily, the West would be certain to impose massive sanctions that would put the shaky Russian economy on its knees – and quickly erode Putin’s power.
Moscow has pushed for a cease-fire in the east, but the Ukrainian government has appeared bent on riding the momentum of a series of recent military advances to crush the rebels.
The Donetsk city administration said in a statement published online Tuesday that three people had been killed in shelling overnight.
In the Kalininsky neighborhood only 5 kilometers (3 miles) east of Donetsk’s central square, rebels and civilians were milling around outside after a night of what many said they believed were Ukrainian air strikes. There were eight craters at the scene that appeared to be the result of aerial bombing.
In another rebel stronghold, the city of Horlivka about 35 kilometers (22 miles) north of Donetsk, the city council said in Wednesday’s statement that 33 civilians have been killed and 129 wounded by shelling over the past few days. The claim couldn’t be independently verified.
As the Ukrainian military intensified its campaign against the rebels, heavily populated areas have increasingly come under attack. Kiev adamantly denies launching artillery barrage and air raids against residential neighborhoods and accuses the rebels of firing at civilian areas. The government has offered little evidence to prove its claims, which Human Rights Watch and others have questioned.
Ukrainian security spokesman Andriy Lysenko categorically denied Wednesday that Ukrainian airplanes have carried out air strikes on Donestsk.
“The cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as other cities and residential areas, are not being bombed by Ukrainian military aviation,” Lysenko said.
Alexander Pivko, an emergency worker at the scene, didn’t believe it. “It was an aerial attack, and two warehouse workers were injured,” he said, adding that no one in the neighborhood had been killed.
The only buildings damaged in this industrial neighborhood were a warehouse, a boiler room, and an auto repair shop. But one crater from an explosion was only 10 meters away from a nearby residential building.
“I ran with my two children to hide in the basement after the first strike,” said Marina Sibekina, a 30-year-old teacher. “A plane was in the air and in about five minutes a second explosion rang out.”
“The rebels built a base here, but we’re the ones who suffer,” she said.
Soviet-era weapons in the Ukrainian military arsenals lack precision, making collateral damage in urban warfare inevitable.
The Ukrainian government has moved in swiftly on the rebel forces, ousting them from smaller towns in the region and tightening their grip on the regional capital cities of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Donetsk did not see much fighting other than a rebel attempt in May to seize the airport. But the city has come under more shelling in recent weeks, and local authorities estimate that around 200,000 people in the city of 1 million have left their homes. The airport is closed, but buses and trains are still running. The U.N. has estimated that more than 1,100 civilians have died in the conflict since April.
As the rebels struggle to push back Kiev’s forces, fears of Russian intervention have grown.
Russia has denied any buildup on the border. The Russian Defense Ministry on Tuesday also shrugged off U.S. warnings that an air force exercise in southern Russia this week was adding to tensions, saying that the drills are conducted hundreds of kilometers away from the Ukrainian border.
Peter Leonard in Kiev, Ukraine and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.