Graham Stack in Luhansk -
The shelling of Luhansk continued July 21 as international observers and Russian media were evacuated from the city. Shelling of Donetsk, the largest city in southeast Ukraine, has also started, described by the regional governor as the work of the rebels.
Luhansk came under renewed shellfire on July 21, with heavy explosions rocking the city centre in the morning, near the headquarters of Russian-backed rebel militias who have controlled the city since late April. Shellfire also hit residential areas further out.
In an interview with bne, the Organization for Security and Co‑operation in Europe's (OSCE) monitoring officer for Luhansk, Kai Vittrup, and members of his team expressed alarm about the shelling of the city, and scepticism about Kyiv's past claims that it is the separatists themselves who are secretly shelling the city of just under 500,000 in order to consolidate support. “We can't say out of hand that this has never happened, but they [Kyiv] have presented no real evidence to support this,” Vittrup told bne. He also detailed that OSCE representatives had directly witnessed Ukraine army units firing artillery rounds from positions near to Luhansk that then struck the city. Many shells had fallen in built-up areas of no strategic significance, causing casualties, he said.
A spokesperson for Ukraine's defence ministry earlier told bne that the armed forces "have never, do not and never will" fire on the civilian population."
Vittrup said Ukrainian units were now using “pretty well everything,” and that there was clear evidence of land-land rocket systems, such as Soviet-built Grad mobile multiple rocket launchers, being used against Luhansk, confirming bne's own observations. Russian-backed militias continue to pound Ukrainian positions from out of Luhansk, using rockets and artillery, arguably exposing the civilian population to response fire.
Given that both sides – Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebel militias – are showing an increasingly no-holds-barred approach to combat, other members of the OSCE team in Luhansk spoke of the possibility of a “second Chechnya.” OSCE's update on the situation in Ukraine on July 21 quoted the head of the city morgue as saying that 28 civilians in the city had died from shelling July 18-19, with latest figures not yet available. The report also detailed an OSCE visit to an impact site apparently of a rocket attack July 19 beside a bus shelter, resulting in casualties.
Minutes after bne talked to the OSCE representatives, they received evacuation orders to Kyiv. With pro-Ukrainian forces have long since fled the territory of the self-declared “People's Republic of Luhansk,” this leaves the city largely without external observers. At the same time, Russian TV crews – many of whom are on Ukrainian soil illegally, and are detested by pro-Kyiv forces as Kremlin propagandists – were queuing up for evacuation from Luhansk to the Russian border, as Ukrainian units moved closer around the city. As bne reported, the Russian TV crews were targeted by what was apparently Ukrainian shellfire in the evening of July 20 while attempting a transfer between hotels.
Ukrainian troops are now believed to be closing in on the city from the east and west flanks, having dug themselves in the village of Metallist on the north edge of Luhansk, and holding the airport and taking the village of Georgievka to the south. Apparent air strikes were heard from the south in the daytime and in the early evening, rocket fire was heard and plumes of smoke seen rising from the from the immediate west of the city, after reports that Ukrainian forces had taken the nearby village of Yubilenoe.
Ukrainian forces also stepped up efforts to take the city of Donetsk on July 21, with rocket fire hitting the outskirts of the city, causing civilian casualties, and tanks and armoured vehicles were also sighted, according to Interfax. West Donetsk took the brunt of the shelling. Media reported heavy fighting in Donetsk around the airport on July 21 and that Ukrainian forces captured the village of Pisky on the edge of Donetsk.
According to the site of Donetsk city hall, two people died after a rocket hit a house, with casualties from numerous other reported shell and rocket impacts are not known.
A spokesman for Ukraine's “anti-terrorist operation” denied that the deaths in Donetsk were the result of any weaponry used by the Ukrainian forces. Kyiv-appointed governor of Donetsk, Serhiy Taruta, in a statement late July 21 likewise claimed that Donetsk had been “gripped by panic” and the conviction that “the Ukrainian army is attacking our city.”
“This is a lie,” Taruta said. “Understanding that they do not have mass support from the locals, terrorists have taken our town hostage and are killing it, by carrying out strikes against residential areas. He suggested locals “should not be afraid to leave the city,” and that the “nightmare would soon be over.”
The escalation of military action around Donetsk apparently follows the pattern of Luhansk since last week, indicating that Ukrainian strategy may have shifted to a simultaneous seizure of both the major populations centres in the Donbass basin region, using the window of opportunity provided by the international furore over the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 on July 17.
Across the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, Kyiv claimed to have captured a number of small towns with strategic significance, especially Derzhinsk and Rubezhnoe, thus impairing rebels' supply routes from Russia, although this could not be independently confirmed. There was fighting reported ongoing in the towns of Severodonetsk, Lissichansk and Avdeevka, according to the Centre of Political-Military Research. In the morning of July 21 a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council said that two Ukrainian servicemen had died over the last 24 hours.
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