DONETSK: Deadly clashes between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels threatened civilians in central Donetsk on Monday, with shelling hitting a hospital and warnings of insurgents launching attacks from residential areas.
Ukraine also made fresh accusations of Moscow backing the separatists, alleging that hundreds of Russian troops along with heavy weaponry crossed the border to join the fight.
And in the eastern city of Kharkiv, which has been generally spared fighting but where tensions are high between backers of Kiev and the pro-Russian separatists, 12 people were wounded in an explosion near a court where a pro-Western militant was being tried.
In Brussels on Monday, EU foreign ministers agreed there would be no change in the bloc’s Russia policy, nor let-up in its sanctions.
The union’s diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini warned the situation in the ex-Soviet republic was “much worse than in last weeks”.
After a pause in the fighting early Monday as people celebrated Orthodox Epiphany, clashes reignited in the afternoon, with regular explosions heard coming from the direction of Donetsk’s flashpoint airport.
The upsurge in violence in recent days has left a September truce in tatters, with heavy combat shaking the area at the weekend after Ukraine launched a major counter-offensive to push out the rebels.
However, the hospital hit on Monday is in the centre of Donetsk, and rebel officials who control the area reported six wounded, including one doctor and five patients. The front of the building was damaged and windows were blown out.
A university across from the hospital was also hit and there was speculation in the neighbourhood over whether the intended target was the nearby separatist security ministry.
Larissa Polyakova, who was nearby, said students were lucky not to have been being hit.
“Shells fell on the window,” she said. “Miraculously, the students had left the room 15 minutes before. Can you imagine what would have happened if they were still inside?”
Elsewhere, in Debaltseve some 60 kilometres (around 40 miles) north of Donetsk, artillery fire killed three people on Monday and wounded 12, according to Ukrainian officials.
Concerns mounted over the fate of civilians, with rebels said to be launching attacks from residential areas and Ukrainian forces accused of returning fire.
“The use of heavily populated areas for launching attacks by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Horlivka and the return of fire into these areas by pro-Kiev forces is putting civilian lives in great danger,” Denis Krivosheev, deputy Europe and Central Asia programme director for Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Ukraine’s military reported at least three soldiers killed over the last 24 hours and another 66 wounded, but claimed to be in control of the heavily damaged airport.
Rebels have disputed Kiev’s account and there was no independent confirmation, with journalists unable to approach the site.
An adviser to Ukraine’s president said rebels blew up part of a ceiling at the airport on Monday, causing a section to collapse, wounding many soldiers.
It was unclear whether the wounded were included in the toll reported earlier by the military and further details of the incident were not immediately clear.
With rebels at one point claiming to control the airport, Ukraine launched a massive counter-offensive with tanks and other heavy artillery at the weekend.
Kiev and Moscow traded blame for the breakdown of the ceasefire as the airport battle raged, while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced alarm and called for an end to the violence.
Ukraine and Western nations say Russia has supported the rebels with troops and weapons, charges Moscow strongly denies despite witness claims to the contrary.
Kiev made fresh accusations on Monday, saying some 700 Russian troops had crossed the border into rebel-held territory earlier in the day.
“This morning, two groups of armed forces from the Russian Federation crossed the border,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told AFP.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said they were accompanied by “tanks, Howitzer (artillery), Grad and Smerch (rocket launchers) and Buk (missiles)”.