Civilians Caught in Crossfire as Ukraine Separatists Make Gains

Members of the armed forces of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic drive a tank on the outskirts of Donetsk January 22, 2015. Alexander Ermochenko/REUTERS

The ceasefire between the government of Ukraine and pro-Russian separatist fighters in the country’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions has collapsed as fighting between the two sides intensified today, with the rebels mounting an offensive on territories currently held by Ukraine.

Kiev-loyal forces are preparing to repel advancing pro-Russian rebels across the Donetsk region as rebel leader Alexander Zaharchenko, head of the pro-Russian militant group which calls itself the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), officially ruled out any more ceasefire talks with Ukraine’s Kiev government. He told Russian news agency RIA Novosti: “There will not be any ceasefire anymore.”

“Kiev does not seem to understand that we can fight them on three fronts,” Zaharchenko said, ruling out forming a new a truce with Kiev after the last one, which was agreed in December, collapsed when fighting erupted around Donetsk airport a fortnight ago.

“We will fight until we reach the Donetsk region border,” Zaharchenko added, indicating the rebels plan to seize the region’s western and southern territories which include the Ukrainian-held port city of Mariupol.

A few hours later Yevgeny Deydey, a Ukrainian MP and commander of the pro-Kiev battalion Kyiv-1 reported separatist fighters were advancing towards Mariupol, south from Donetsk city, and there were reports of attacks by the separatists to the city’s west as well.

“The terrorists have begun a tank offensive. I do not rule out that separatist attacks in other territories held by Ukraine are a diversion tactic,” Deydey said. Deydey indicated he was not stationed near Donetsk but was relaying a message from battalions who were.

According to Deydey the town of Talakovka, between Donetsk and Mariupol is currently “being shelled hard” by separatists, however pro-Kiev troops there are “holding on.”

Dmitry Tymchuk, a Ukrainian blogger and military specialist also reported on Facebook today that he had spotted seven DNR tanks and eight more armoured fighting vehicles advancing from separatist areas in the Donetsk region to the west as well as to the south - towards Mariupol.

Andriy Lysenko, the official spokesperson for the Ukrainian armed forces has confirmed rebel tanks are advancing towards Mariupol, shelling army checkpoints in the city’s outskirts.

However he insisted the rebels were “still incapable” of shelling the city itself, as pro-Kiev forces had not let them get close enough.

Ukrainian news agency Unian reported earlier today that the Ukrainian military has completed a 400km enforced trench along its border with the separatist held territories in Donetsk, anticipating such an advance. Work began on the trench in August and it’s equipped with artillery.

Over the last nine days fighting between DNR rebels and pro-Kiev forces has intensified and the UN have reported that approximately 262 people have been killed in the country.

Last night Ukrainian daily newspaper Segodnya reported that DNR separatist were making preparations for an advance, uploading video footage of what appeared to be a Russian Smerch multiple rocket launcher making its way westward from the rebel-held town of Makiivka towards the line of battle near Donetsk airport.

The newspaper has started live blogging the “flashpoints” of the budding conflict today, indicating they anticipate intensifying skirmishes between separatists and Kiev forces.

Meanwhile pro-Kiev forces have reported some success in advances into separatist-held territory to the northeast of Donetsk, into the Luhansk region.

The leader of a pro-Kiev volunteer battalion, Semen Semenchenko wrote on Facebook today that his soldiers, working alongside Ukraine’s national guard, had broken through the defences of a pro-Russian rebel checkpoint between Sloviansk and Luhansk, north of Donetsk.  

According to Kiev’s government representative in Luhansk Gennady Moskal, most of Ukrainian-held Luhansk was without power today after separatists had attacked a central power station, while engaging with pro-Kiev troops.