Commuters were waiting to travel to work. The tram and bus terminal in Kuprina Street, south Donetsk, was busy. Some had boarded a waiting bus when, at around 9.30am today, missiles fell from the sky, killing 13 people and injuring another 20.
“Here I am, cleaning up blood and brains, and they have the nerve to call us terrorists,” cried Irina Petrovna, 52, as she held up a blue bucket after the shelling in Ukraine’s troubled east.
The event served as the latest reminder of how December’s uneasy truce has broken down and given way to full-scale hostilities. It came eight days after a civilian bus was shelled while waiting at a Ukrainian checkpoint on the Mariupol-Donetsk highway.
Over the last week, Donetsk city centre has become largely deserted after dark. The thunder of artillery is commonplace. Fighting has been concentrated in the districts nearest Donetsk’s ruined airport, located six miles to the north of the city. But shelling has in recent days also reached central streets. Donetsk airport has become a symbolic Stalingrad, with stakes high for both sides. Without the airport, Russian-backed rebel forces were unable to claim control of the city. For the Ukrainians, the loss of the airport would represent a big moral and strategic defeat, with possible consequences for Ukrainian sovereignty in other cities.
Over the last week there have been various versions as to the situation at the airport, with each side claiming full control. On Wednesday, however, Kiev appeared to admit defeat by stating it was concentrating on holding positions around neighbouring villages. The military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said government forces had withdrawn. “We left the new terminal because it looks like a sieve and there’s simply nowhere to hide there,” he said.
The Independent was on several occasions able to speak to “Slavik”, the nom de guerre of a 22-year-old Ukrainian paratrooper serving in the 80th brigade. Last weekend, Slavik said he was one of a number of Ukrainian soldiers still in the airport’s new terminal. He was nervous, explaining that rebel forces had encircled the unit, that Ukrainian artillery was providing “insufficient” cover, and that they were experiencing heavy bombardment.
Slavik said he could see a number of soldiers on the floor – “some dead, some injured”. Ukrainian forces had not been able to create a corridor to evacuate the seriously injured, he added. By Monday this week, The Independent was unable to reach Slavik. At some point during the course of the day, the new terminal building was bombed by rebel forces, crushing the Ukrainian soldiers that remained inside. Many were killed in the explosion, and others remained trapped under the rubble.
Speaking to The Independent on Wednesday, the Ukrainian negotiator Vladimir Ruban revealed that he was in discussions to allow access to the terminal to remove trapped soldiers who, he said, were dying from injuries.
Later that day, rebel forces released videos showing they had captured 11 Ukrainian soldiers from the airport, including Slavik. Today he was at the front of a column of war prisoners, brought to the scene of the Kuprina Street bus explosion for a public parade of disgrace.
Locals who had gathered for the parade were shouting insults, spitting and on occasion striking the prisoners. The rebel military escort did little to impede them from doing so.
Much confusion remains as to who, or what, was behind the bus attack. Craters at the scene suggested they were consistent with shorter-range, high-trajectory missiles. Rebel authorities at the scene also put forward a mortar theory, contending that they had been launched by pro-Ukrainian partisan groups from within the city.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
At the same time, the rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko declared there had been artillery strikes in the area, and a rebel representative claimed a 152mm howitzer had landed in a factory alongside the bus terminal.
Near one of the residential blocks to have been hit in recent shelling, 25 Prospekt Mira, there were two craters. Vyacheslav Saransky, who was at home at the time, says that the missiles landed at 8.15am, and that two residents had been hospitalised.
An American military specialist who saw photographs of the damage said he believed it was probably caused by “a 120mm mortar, of type 2B11”. The most common variant of this mortar munition is the so-called Sani (Sleigh), developed by the Soviet Union in 1981. The maximum range of such missiles is 4.7 miles, less than the nearest known Ukrainian military position.
Whichever way this attack is interpreted – as evidence of rebels shooting their own, or of pro-Ukrainian partisans operating within the city – it is certain to radicalise both sides further.
“If the enemy does not want to keep the ceasefire, we will kick them in the teeth”, said Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko.