Rockets struck and killed many civilians fleeing the besieged eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk, burning some of them alive inside their cars, the military said on Aug. 18. The exact number of civilians killed is unclear. The government's report of an attack, which took place in an area of heavy fighting near Luhansk, could not be confirmed immediately.
Anatoly Proshin, a spokesman for the Ukrainian government's north operational command, blamed the Russian-backed insurgents for opening fire on the convoy of refugees with rockets from a Grad multiple launch missile system near the cities of Khriaschuvate and Novosvitlivka. He said the convoy was flying white flags as it made its way out of town.
“The terrorists committed a bloody crime at 9:40 this morning. Near Luhansk, on the road between Khryashchuvate and Novosvitlivka, the mercenaries used Grad systems and grenade-launchers imported from Russia to shoot at a column of civilians attempting to leave the combat zone,” National Security and Defense Council spokesperson Andriy Lysenko said at a briefing in Kyiv. “Many people died, including women and children. The number of casualties is currently being determined.”
However, rebel leaders say Ukrainian government forces were behind the deadly rocket attack.
Konstantin Knyrik, a rebel spokesperson, dismissed Kyiv’s claims, telling Russia’s Interfax news agency “such claims are pure propaganda.”
A top rebel official of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Andrey Purgin, also denied that their military forces had attacked the convoy.
“The Ukrainians themselves have bombed the road constantly with planes and Grads. It seems they now killed more civilians like they have been doing for months,” he was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, fighting raged on in the cities of Zhdanivka, Makiyivka, Khartsyzsk, Debaltsevo and Starobesheve on Aug. 18, said Lysenko, adding that the armed forces of Ukraine continued to push rebels out of Yasynuvata a day after President Petro Poroshenko boasted on Twitter that they had reclaimed the strategically important rail hub.
The Kyiv Post visited the insurgents' front line of the fight in Yasynuvata on Aug. 17. More than 100 fighters, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and Russian-made sniper rifles said they had been on the receiving end of non-stop artillery fire from Ukrainian forces.
Government troops had rolled tanks into the city and pushed the rebels south beyond a bridge on the edge of town near Makiivka. Dozens regrouped to talk strategy behind a line of trees while others scurried over railroad tracks to their bunkers near the bridge. Around them plumes of dense black smoke billowed from areas where artillery had struck the earth.
Horlivka, Mala Ivanivka, Andrianivka and Alchevsk were completely blocked after intense fighting on Aug. 18, Lysenko added.
Amid the clashes over the past 24 hours, nine Ukrainian servicemen were killed and another 20 wounded, according to the National Security and Defense Council. More than 2,000 people, including civilians and servicemen, have been killed during the conflict since mid-April, according to the United Nations.
In Donetsk, a rebel-controlled stronghold with a pre-war population of around one million residents that has seen some 300,000 flee since the onset of the conflict, fighting damaged two water-filtration plants, forcing running water to be shut off throughout the region, the city council said in a statement.
The neighboring regional capital of Luhansk has been without power and running water for 15 days due to damage incurred by heavy shelling, the city council reported.
Also in Donetsk, the rebel leadership officially introduced the death penalty for “serious crimes,” calling particular attention to treason, espionage, sabotage and attempts on the lives of the rebel leadership.
Death sentences were previously handed down, however, by the former self-declared defense minister of the self-styled people’s republic, Igor Girkin, better known by his nom de guerre Igor Strelkov.
The Kyiv Post recovered documents from his former office in the liberated city of Sloviansk that showed at least three cases in which people were sentenced to death by firing squad for looting.
All around Donetsk on Aug. 18, shelling continued. In a neighborhood on its southeastern edge, Nina Saltanova, 79, sifted through the charred, still-smoldering remains of her home, which was struck by Grad rockets on Aug. 16.
Showing journalists the blackened remnants of an apartment adjacent to her house, she said her paralyzed daughter -- who was inside when the missiles struck 00 was saved when a local militiaman carried her to safety. Despite destroying her home and the homes of many others, there were no casualties in the attack.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action, as well as Ukraine Media Project, managed by Internews and funded by the United States Agency for International Development.