Clashes in Ukraine flashpoint town rage for third day

31 Jan 2017 / 21:30 H.

AVDIIVKA, Ukraine: Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels clashed heavily for a third straight day at a flashpoint town Tuesday, as thousands of locals remained without power after a deadly surge in fighting.
The industrial hub of Avdiivka came under attack on Sunday from insurgents seeking to wrest back territory controlled by Kiev during the nearly three-year war.
The Avdiivka clashes have claimed the lives of at least 13 civilians and fighters on both sides since Sunday.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko underscored the urgency of the situation by cutting short a visit to Berlin on Monday.
Poroshenko is worried that Donald Trump's victory in the US presidential election and praise for Russia's Vladimir Putin may add fuel to a conflict that began shortly after Ukraine's 2014 ouster of its Moscow-backed leader and tilt toward the West.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters the Kremlin was "extremely worried" but had "reliable information" that renegade units of pro-Kiev fighters — and not the army itself — were in fact responsible for the initial attacks.
An AFP reporter saw the separatists shell the town of about 20,000 people with repeated rounds of Grad multiple rocket systems and artillery fire from the early morning.
"Right now, there is no power. We have not resolved problems with heating homes, and the gas pipe has been shattered," a Ukrainian army brigade spokeswoman, Olena Mokrynchuk, told AFP.
The town's military administrator Freedon Vekua told AFP he was preparing for a possible evacuation of Avdiivka — which sits just 5km north of the rebels' de facto capital of Donetsk — because of the power outage.
Ukraine is struggling through freezing conditions in which temperatures drop to -15°C at night and the homes in Avdiivka are in dire need of heating.
"The issue of an evacuation has not been decided fully. We see it as our very last resort because there is still a chance of restoring heating," said Vekua.
The sides have agreed to a series of temporary ceasefires and an "indefinite" one on Dec 23 — but none has been fully respected.
The conflict has killed nearly 10,000 people — more than half of them civilians — and plunged Moscow's relations with the West to a post-Cold War low.
Russia denies backing the insurgents and only admits that Russian "volunteers" and off-duty soldiers have entered the war zone of their own free will. — AFP

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