TONENKE, Ukraine: Pro-Kremlin insurgents unleashed a massive rocket assault in Ukraine on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) as Kiev and Moscow traded blame for a bus shelling that killed 12 in the war’s bloodiest incident since a September truce.
The heavy caliber shells and grenades whistled through the sky every few minutes and dug huge craters in the snowy fields along a front line that skirts a devastated village 10 kilometers (six miles) northwest of the eastern rebel stronghold Donetsk.
Blasts inside Tonenke itself — abandoned by all but a handful of its 300 residents — flattened buildings and mangled paved roads that stretch toward a disputed airport on the edge of Donetsk.
“This is all-out war,” a volunteer soldier who adopted the nom de guerre “The Pastor” told Agence France-Presse on his way out of a Donetsk suburb used by Ukrainian troops to support a skeleton force holding on to the airport since May.
“The attacks start early in the morning and end deep into the night. There is a quiet spell of one or two hours at most. It has never been like this before,” the soldier said.
The type of long-distance exchanges piercing the skies around the militants’ capital on Wednesday have caused hundreds of civilian casualties throughout the nine-month campaign.
A long-range Grad rocket killed 12 people on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) when it exploded near a commuter bus traveling toward Donetsk from a government-controlled city on Ukraine’s southeast coast.
Images of the yellow bus’s shattered frame standing in a field of bloodied snow underscored how distant a truce remains after the death of more than 4,700 people and effective destruction of Ukraine’s industrial base.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told the nation that Tuesday’s rocket was fired by rebels, while responsibility rested on “those who stand behind them — those whose hand feeds them and arms them, drills them and inspires them to commit bloody crimes.”
The transparent reference to Moscow — charges which President Vladimir Putin rejects — was followed by Kiev claims that the fighters employed a massive 30-barrel flamethrower, a type used by Russia but not Ukraine.
Kiev said insurgents used it for the first time overnight to attack the eastern village of Vesele.
This type of system “only exists in the operational service of the Russian army. It is not operated by us,” Ukrainian defense ministry spokeswoman Viktoria Kushnir told AFP.
Russia issued no immediate comment. But the foreign ministry’s rights envoy called the bus incident “another crime of the Kiev military.”
“We are outraged. This undermines all peace settlement efforts,” Konstantin Dolgov told the TASS news agency.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later softened those comments by conceding that “there are several versions [of the incident]. We need to examine them.”
The rocket strike damaged Poroshenko’s efforts to set up a peace summit where Putin could personally sign a truce under which the Kremlin assumes responsibility for disarming the militias and dispelling their independence claims.