Fighting intensified in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday despite a fragile cease-fire, as pro-Russian rebels appeared to be close to capturing the strategically important Donetsk airport.
The fighting was some of the worst since a Sept. 5 truce that calmed the conflict but did not end the hostilities, and city authorities said that at least nine civilians died in the day’s battles. Ukraine’s military and separatist forces said the fighting intensified Wednesday, as rebels vowed to seize the airport, which has remained in government hands for almost all of the six-month-long conflict.
If rebels succeed in taking the airport, they will gain an important means to allow supplies to be brought to their war-torn territory as they seek to build a new state in Ukraine’s southeast. The cease-fire hands over effective control of the territory to the rebels without granting them independence. For the Kiev government, losing the airport would be a major symbolic defeat after its forces suffered heavy losses in a battle in late May to keep it under their control.
Donetsk city government officials said Wednesday that residents are contending with an “extremely difficult situation” and that the part of the city closest to the airport came under “massive bombardment.” At least six civilians were killed when a shell hit a minibus, and another shell hit the grounds of a school, shattering windows and killing a biology teacher and two parents on the first day back at school for students in rebel-held territories, authorities said.
The Ukrainian military denied firing at the school or at the bus. It said its forces came under fire at the airport Wednesday from tanks and Grad multiple-rocket launchers. Despite the continued fighting and rising casualty toll, both sides have been reluctant to declare the cease-fire over, and there were no signs Wednesday that they planned to abandon the political terms of the peace deal reached last month in Minsk, Belarus. The terms include prisoner exchanges and more autonomy for the territories under rebel control. A subsequent agreement spells out the pullback of heavy artillery from the front lines on both sides.