Russian-backed separatists continue to fire on Ukrainian government forces and appear to be preparing a new advance on this front-line city near the Russian border, a top commander of the Ukrainian National Guard said Wednesday.
“Today there was more shelling on Mariupol and gun fights, but this time it was from the Berdyansk side also,” said Andriy Klos, chief of staff of the Azov Brigade, an all-volunteer unit defending the first major city west of the Russian border along the Sea of Azov. “So I think the (rebels’) area is expanding,” he said in an interview with USA TODAY.
The continued fighting illustrated the fragile nature of a cease-fire between the Ukrainian national government and pro-Russian rebels who are seeking to separate from Ukraine.
The shelling of government positions east of Mariupol killed seven civilians in a funeral procession on Tuesday, according to the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine.
Klos described sporadic attacks on Azov Brigade vehicles and personnel. He spoke amid the scent of cooking fires and sounds of men training and modifying civilian vehicles for military use as darkness settled on brigade headquarters in a beach-front summer camp here, about a half-hour drive west of Mariupol.
On Tuesday, gunmen on a scooter shot at Azov Brigade personnel, and someone threw a grenade under a commander’s truck, Klos said. A week ago, seven “enemy combatants” were caught on the outskirts of Mariupol. Some were in a tank and others in an SUV were Russian special-forces personnel who had come to the area to train “terrorists” in the Mariupol area, Klos said.
“These are signs things will grow,” he said.
The Azov Brigade saw heavy fighting in August, when Mariupol was nearly surrounded after dozens of armored vehicles and artillery units crossed the Russian border and attacked Ukrainian government and volunteer forces. Observers for NATO and the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe said the Russian military participated in the fighting, though Russia denied taking part.
Also Wednesday, fighting continued in cities that are strongholds of the rebels. Separatist forces attacked government positions near the city of Luhansk, killing 12 Ukrainian soldiers, according to the Kiev Post. Artillery or mortar shells continued to hit the now-destroyed Donetsk airport, despite the Russia-brokered cease-fire agreement signed Sept. 5 between separatists and the Ukrainian government.