Ukraine death toll spikes as attacks intensify
DONETSK, Ukraine — A rebel-held city in eastern Ukraine came under intensified shelling Wednesday as the U.N. revealed that the death toll from the fighting between government troops and separatists has nearly doubled in the last two weeks.
A spokeswoman for the U.N.’s human rights office, Cecile Pouilly, said the organization’s “very conservative estimates” show the overall death toll has risen to at least 2,086 people as of Aug. 10, up from 1,129 on July 26.
Pouilly said at least 4,953 others have been wounded in the fighting since mid-April.
While the humanitarian crisis reaches critical stage in at least one major Ukrainian city, trucks apparently carrying some 2,000 tons of aid have lain idle at a military depot in Russia. Moscow insists it coordinated the dispatch of the goods, which range from baby food and canned meat to portable generators and sleeping bags, with the international Red Cross, but Ukraine says it’s worried the mission may be a cover for an invasion.
A spokesman for local authorities in the main rebel-controlled city of Donetsk told The Associated Press on Wednesday that rocket attacks over the previous night had increased in intensity.
Several high-rise apartment blocks in a southwestern district in the city showed the effect of artillery strikes. In one, the facade of one of the top floors was blown away to reveal a shattered interior. Others bore smashed windows and gaping holes.
Associated Press reporters saw two bodies lying in a street Wednesday morning in Donetsk’s southwestern Petrovsky district. The local government said three were killed, a figure that adds to the sharply mounting death toll.
Shelling in Donetsk has damaged power plants and gas pipelines, leaving large parts of the city without electricity or gas, city council spokesman Maxim Rovinsky said.
Damage to residential buildings is an apparent result of two combined factors: The army has refrained from going into Donetsk, favoring an artillery campaign of attrition over close urban combat. And local residents have regularly revealed that damaged houses are often to be found near rebel firing positions, suggesting that the rocket attacks are responses to outgoing strikes.
Government troops and the volunteers fighting with them are also sustaining heavy losses while making regular territorial advances.
At least 12 militiamen fighting alongside the army were killed overnight Tuesday in an ambush outside Donetsk, a spokesman for their radical nationalist movement said Wednesday.
The situation in Luhansk, also in rebel hands, is yet more serious. City authorities said Wednesday they had entered the 11th straight day without power supplies. Running water has dried up and the few working shops are selling only basic essentials.
Rocket attacks remain a daily occurrence.
The scale of the crisis there sparked Moscow into sending a huge convoy of white trucks Tuesday carrying aid for the population in the Luhansk region.
Ukraine grudgingly agreed to the initiative, while expressing severe misgivings over failure by Russia to coordinate with the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Andre Loersch, a spokesman for the ICRC mission in Ukraine, said he was still in the dark Wednesday about the final destination of the convoy.
Other than what appeared to be a few supply runs, the roughly 262 vehicles in the convoy lay idle at a military base in the southern city of Voronezh into Wednesday evening.
Under a tentative agreement, Ukraine and Russia had said the aid would be delivered to a government-controlled crossing in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, which hasn’t been touched by the months of fighting that have wracked neighboring regions. The cargo would then have to be inspected by the Red Cross.
But accord has soured into acrimony with the spokesman for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday accusing Moscow of possibly planning a “direct invasion of Ukrainian territory under the guise of delivering humanitarian aid.”
Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said that he “had information” that the convoy won’t go through Kharkiv, but that “nobody knows where it will go.”
That leaves the option for the convoy to go through a portion of the border further south that is under the control of the armed pro-Russian separatist rebels that the government has been battling for the last four months. This scenario would all but certainly not involve the Red Cross and is viewed with profound hostility by the Ukrainian government.
Lysenko said that any deliveries of aid “that don’t have the mandate of the Red Cross … are taken as aggressive forces and the response will be adequate to that.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, insisted that the aid convoy was on the move inside Russia, but declined to comment on the route. He said the operation was proceeding in full cooperation with the Red Cross.
Amid the tensions, Putin traveled to Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in March, where he chaired a session of his Security Council. A meeting with Putin’s entire Cabinet and most Russian lawmakers has been scheduled for Thursday.
Grits reported from Donetsk, Ukraine. John Heilprin in Geneva, Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk, Peter Leonard in Kiev, and Natalya Vasilyeva in Sevastopol, Crimea, contributed to this report.