Pro-Russian rebels 'launch 12-hour attack' on Ukraine forces

Ukraine's eastern town of Shirokyne, which sits between pro-Russian rebel held territory and the strategically important city of Mariupol, has sustained 12 hours of separatist attacks according to Ukrainian fighters who claim to be holding positions in the town.

Pro-Kiev volunteer battalions in the east of the country have emerged since fighting broke out between Ukraine's armed forces and pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine.

According to the press desk of one of the battalions stationed there, who refer to themselves as the 'Donbas battalion', pro-Russian forces opened tank fire on pro-government positions near the beach last night. The attack lasted for an hour and firefight has persisted since.

The Donbas battalion reported on its Facebook page that its members, working in tandem with fellow volunteer fighters from the Azov battalion as well as Ukraine's armed forces, have defended against the attack on Shirokyne and that there were no new casualties on the Ukrainian side today.

Fighting in Shirokyne has escalated in recent days. This latest announcement comes after the Donbas battalion reported "almost constant fighting" in the town over the weekend, adding that pro-Russian forces had shelled pro-government positions with 120mm mortar grenade launchers and also used small arms and sniper fire.

On Sunday the battalion announced the death of fighter Ivan Sotnik who died during combat operations. Another fighter by the nickname 'Thor' was wounded non-lethally as well.

Since a second ceasefire between Ukraine and the Russian-backed rebels was agreed in Minsk, Belarus in February, fighting has been sporadic, following periods of relative peace. The first agreement, signed in September, collapsed under similar circumstances after sporadic skirmishes turned into a full scale conflict near Donetsk airport and other points in the east of the country. 

Shirokyne has been among the towns reporting shelling and rebel attacks most frequently because of its proximity to the port city of Mariupol - one of the largest cities in eastern Ukraine and one of the key industrial Black Sea ports for the Donbas region.

Rebel leader Alexander Zaharchenko said in the summer that he plans to eventually take Mariupol, but despite skirmishes and shelling nearby, the city remains under Kiev's control. An escalation in fighting in the east over the last fortnight has prompted fears of an impending advance.

According to Anatoliy Hrytsenko, Ukraine's former minister of defence, Mariupol is a priority target for the pro-Russian forces as it will help form a land corridor between the rebel held territory in the east and the annexed Crimean peninsula.

"Does Putin have a plan to advance further with an objective to establish a land corridor connecting the Russian-occupied territories with Crimea? I believe, such a plan has been on his table for quite a while, since last summer at least," Hrytsenko says.

Hrytsenko also points to the eastern Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporizhya regions, which border war stricken Donbas, as other possible strategic targets.

Meanwhile Russian language media have circulated a video online purporting to show "Englishmen fighting in Shirokyne" for Ukraine. In the footage, two men with thick eastern European accents introduce themselves as Thomas Miller and Prince Harry (Gary) and say they're from the city of Leicester. They wave an English flag to the soundtrack of the Beatles' Help and the British national anthem.