Graham Stack in Luhansk, Ukraine -
While the world has been transfixed by the crash site of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, just an hour and half away dozens died from shelling in Luhansk on July 18. And while the guilt of Russian-backed rebels seems close to certain for downing the MH17 flight, there is also growing suspicion it is the rebels themselves who are behind the shelling of the population that they claim to protect.
On a street crossing in east Luhansk near midday on July 18 – close by the large "Eastern" outdoor market where cheap food, clothes and household wares are sold from stands; opposite a swanky supermarket where the better off shop – a mother and daughter was waiting to cross the road and a young woman fresh out of school was selling dairy products at a kiosk when a mortar shell landed among them.
“There was no warning, no whistle,” recalls Olga Kuznetsova, a shopkeeper, who standing on the opposite street side was herself struck by flying asphalt. “It just came and people literally dissolved into air.”
CCTV footage recorded at a clothes shop close by the attack shows a young man in shorts and sandals, earplugs and rucksack strolling by the shop, then smashed to the ground by the explosion and covered by a cloud of smoke. As the smoke clears, he slowly drags himself further away with his arms. Ten long minutes pass before ambulances come to aid the wounded.
A total of ten people died in the attack, a number confirmed by photos taken of the bodies strewn across the street in the aftermath. But this was only the worst attack in shelling that started a week ago and turned Luhansk, previously a bustling city of nearly half a million, into a ghost town. Streets are empty of pedestrians and cars, shops are boarded up, air raid sirens wail regularly and there are constant power outages. The crash of artillery strikes ceases only after midnight.
The total dead from the shelling in Luhansk, according to the pro-rebel Luhansk city council, totals over 60 civilians, with 16 more dead on Saturday. A source in the city's criminal police confirmed the figure.
As with many facts in this conflict, the question of who is responsible for the shellings is highly controversial
The Russian-backed rebels – who include fighters directly from Russia – together with Russian media blame the besieging Ukrainian forces. The brunt of the Ukrainian advance is from the north and as bne has reported the northern most district of Kamenobrodskii has seen a good deal of the shelling. A bne reporter saw an unexploded Grad rocket in the 'Old Town' part of Luhansk, which protruded from asphalt at an angle indicating it had been fired from Ukrainian positions.
But the majority of the shell impact sites show small craters and low structural damage indicating mortar fire. Given mortar ranges of 3-7km, while Ukrainian mortars might be in range of the very north of the town, most of the shelling appears to be from within rebel-held territory. The impact line of the shell that killed ten people on July 18 and two other shells fired in the same burst, point to the location of the mortar as being near the banks of the Luhansk, at the city perimeter, well within rebel territory.
Luhansk rebel authorities claim mobile groups of Ukrainian “saboteurs” have entered the city to carry out the attacks. Self-styled deputy prime minister Vassily Nikitin confirmed this, but declined to comment further. “We can give no information that alerts them to our moves,” he said.
bne witnessed frantic attempts by rebel forces apparently to find the Ukrainian mortar fire units and their accomplices on July 20. As mortar shells rained down on the very centre of Luhansk in the afternoon, apparently aiming at the rebels' headquarters, militia men raced to search cellars of nearby buildings and stopped vehicles. Self-styled governor of Luhansk Valery Bolotov announced all traffic in and out of the city would be halted as of July 20.
The Ukrainian side has a very different view. “The shelling is carried out by rebel fighters and terrorists using weaponry supplied by Russia, and deliberately executed chaotically as if done by Ukrainian forces. This is being done for the convenience of Russian media to turn the population against us,” a Ukrainian defence ministry spokesman said.
Local pro-Ukraine activists – who have mostly fled the region – support this view. “The terrorists have again slaughtered peaceful citizens to prove how much they are needed as protectors,” blogger Sergei Ivanov tweeted.
Russian state-controlled media have indeed unquestioningly attributed the Luhansk shelling to the Ukrainian forces, and highlighted the soaring death toll, thus blackening the Kyiv government. The majority of city dwellers are also convinced that the shelling is coming from the Ukrainian side. “Please let the world know of our plight and what the Ukrainian army is doing to us,” Oksana Nekrasova, the owner of a small boutique beside Friday's shelling scene, implored.
There is no doubt that Russian media have cosy relations with the rebels, and that the latter insist it is the Ukrainians doing the shelling. “What monsters could do that [shelling the civilian population]? And as a result every single person living here now hates their guts, don't forget,” a rebel fighter told Russian journalists, his neighbours in a hotel, during a lengthy discourse on returning from the battlefield July 17. The same journalists later themselves came under heavy shell fire, apparently from Ukrainian mortars.
It is also clear that the rebels are firing mortars from the city centre. At the same time, the rebels have stationed artillery and rockets launchers downtown in Luhansk, and use them to pound the advancing Ukrainian forces. Ukraine's ministry of defence says this makes a human shield of the city's inhabitants. “Ukrainian forces will never use artillery against civil population,” the defence ministry tells bne. Locals however point out that the defence ministry does not answer for all forces in Kyiv's “Anti-terror campaign,” which also includes battalions of volunteers believed to be more gung-ho and less professional.
Both arguments have their own logic: locals believe one goal of the Ukrainian mortar shelling is to prompt people to flee the city in the run-up to a storm. Kyiv claims that it is all part of Russia's anti-Ukraine PR war. The truth might be a mixture of both.
While the blame game goes on, the people of Luhansk are despairing. “It won't be long before there are as many corpses here as at Grabova [crash sight of the MH17 flight],” Nekrasova said.
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