Ukraine crisis: Heavy fighting resumes as Russia is accused of using ceasefire to strengthen separatists

Renewed battles in the last part of Donetsk to remain out of rebel hands has made it difficult for even residents to determine who is in control of the suburb. Oliver Carroll reports on the struggle for Marinka

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For Liudmilla Petrovna, 65, Wednesday morning began abruptly. A resident of Marinka, the most westerly suburb of Donetsk that had remained under Ukrainian government control, Mrs Petrovna was woken by the sound of artillery just after 4.30am. Many hours later, she remained in her cellar, without water or electricity, and frightened. “There are tanks in the street and I have no idea whose they are,” she told The Independent.

There was disagreement over who now controlled the suburb, previously the only part of Donetsk not in rebel hands. Andriy Lysenko, a Ukrainian military spokesman, insisted that a Russian-backed rebel attack had been successfully repelled. But Yevgeniy Deidei, a former commander of the Kyiv-1 government battalion based there, said that as much as 70 per cent of Marinka was now under rebel control, with some casualties.

Meanwhile, the rebel defence minister Vladimir Kononov suggested the rebels had seized all of Marinka without a fight, following a “voluntary retreat” by the Ukrainians.

Not in doubt, however, was that there had been a significant push from the rebel side in the morning, representing the most serious violation of the region’s so-called ceasefire since February, when encircled Ukrainian soldiers fought their way out of the strategic town of Debaltseve. While there had been a notable increase in military activity in recent weeks, that had been mostly limited to gunfire battles and mortar exchanges, with no significant territorial changes being recorded. Wednesday’s battle changed that.

Pavel Omelchenko, press officer for Ukraine’s 28 Guards Mechanised Brigade, based in Marinka, told The Independent that Ukrainian soldiers had faced a large fighting force. He claimed the enemy had deployed as many as 10 tanks and 1,000 infantry in the battle. “They used everything at their disposal, including grad rockets, howitzers and other artillery, all forbidden by the Minsk agreement,” he said. Mr Omelchenko, who was not in Marinka, claimed the soldiers of the 28th brigade were “holding their positions”.

The US State Department said it was disturbed by reports of combined Russian and separatist attacks in eastern Ukraine, which followed growing evidence that Russia had used the supposed ceasefire to strengthen separatist forces. “Russia bears direct responsibility for preventing these attacks and implementing a ceasefire,” a spokesman said.

The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, blamed the fresh fighting on “provocations” by the Ukrainian armed forces and said Moscow was deeply concerned with the shelling of civilians there. At least 15 fighters and civilians are reported to have been killed in the clashes, some by apparently indiscriminate shelling.

Last week, the Russian President Vladimir Putin made it an offence under Russian law to report the deaths of members of the country’s armed forces in peacetime – a move apparently aimed at suppressing news about special forces and other operatives killed in eastern Ukraine.

The apparent rebel offensive raises renewed questions over the commitment of the separatist side to the Minsk agreement, meant to end fighting and lead to the withdrawal of heavy weapons. There is strong evidence that Russia has used the ceasefire as an opportunity to re-equip and help reorganise the pro-Moscow separatists.

Speaking to The Independent five days before the Marinka offensive, Cossack Ataman Andrei Kozyr revealed that rebels in Luhansk, another major city lost by the Ukrainian government, underwent a massive military consolidation last month. A military headquarters now co-ordinated the actions of all the separate divisions, he said. All divisions now subordinate to that military command; those that resisted had been disarmed. “Any soldier understands why this was necessary”, he said.

The professionalisation of the rebel army in Luhansk was confirmed by another rebel soldier. Ayo Beneth, a Latvian national now fighting in a rebel artillery division, said that new and “very experienced” instructors had appeared since February. He said that soldiers had not lost their appetite for fighting, but understood the need for patience. They did not expect big operations: “We’ve been told the plan is to take the rest of Luhansk and Donetsk regions bit by bit, so the West does not notice,” he said.

Last week, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko said he would be compelled to introduce martial law were the ceasefire to be violated or current demarcation lines crossed – both of which now seem to have occurred. Under redrafted legislation, martial law would mean tighter state control of media, the economy and political organisations, with curfews introduced.

Yuri Lutsenko, chairman of Mr Poroshenko’s parliamentary group, said the President was also minded to step up an economic blockade of rebel-controlled areas. “You cannot kill Ukrainian soldiers and eat Ukrainian sausage at the same time,” Mr Lutsenko told Ukrainian television journalists.

Restrictions on the transportation of goods have been in operation for three weeks in Luhansk and would soon be extended to neighbouring Donetsk, Mr Lutsenko said. “People will be only be able to cross the border by foot.”

Ukraine’s economic blockade has been unpopular among those living within rebel-controlled areas. Prices have doubled or tripled in a short space of time, though one trader said that it was possible to bypass official procedures by paying around £4,000 per truck.