KIEV: Intense artillery fire broke out early on Sunday in Ukraine’s separatist bastion of Donetsk, in a level of combat not seen in the region since a barely-observed ceasefire was signed in September.
Firing close to the town center began to build up at 2:00 a.m. (11:00 pm on Saturday in Manila), and could still be heard at the same intensity two hours later, Agence France-Presse journalists in the area said.
However, it was not immediately possible to evaluate the consequences of the artillery bombardment because of an overnight curfew imposed by the rebel authorities in Donetsk and nearby Makiivka.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) voiced concern on Saturday after its monitors witnessed unmarked columns of tanks, howitzers and troop carriers moving through east Ukraine in territory held by pro-Russia separatists.
The OSCE report came a day after Ukraine’s military said it had spotted a large column of tanks and other heavy weapons entering the country from Russia across a section of border that has fallen under control of rebel fighters.
Russia denies being involved in the fighting in the east.
However, it openly gives the rebels political and humanitarian backing, and it is not clear how the insurgents could themselves have access to so much sophisticated and well-maintained weaponry.
Last March, Russian soldiers without identification markings took over the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea, and Moscow annexed the region shortly after.
The OSCE reports from the east came as fears mounted of a total breakdown in the ceasefire signed in September in a bid to end the war, which has killed some 4,000 people, according to United Nations figures.
Ukraine’s military said there was bloody fighting on Saturday around Donetsk international airport, where government forces are defending a pocket of territory near the biggest rebel-held city.
Ukraine on Saturday reported eight of its soldiers killed within 24 hours. Seventeen other soldiers were wounded in shelling of government positions around the conflict zone, according to updates from the military.
Several military columns have been seen by foreign journalists in the east in recent weeks, and Ukrainian officials regularly accuse Russia of covertly deploying troops.
However, these reports are often dismissed by Moscow and by the separatist leaders as inaccurate or invented, while the OSCE’s statement was important because it is likely to carry more weight.