Ukraine’s largest rebel-controlled city of Donetsk has been shaken by violence as 10 people, including parents and teachers, were killed – the highest toll since a tenuous ceasefire was agreed.
Terrified children, arriving on Wednesday for the first day of school, were forced to shelter in the basement as the shelling yielded the highest single civilian toll since the ceasefire was struck between Kiev and pro-Russian separatists last month.
Clashes have raged for days at several flashpoints around the region, with both sides blaming the other for violating the agreement that commits them to withdrawing weapons and establishing a buffer zone.
The US has decried the violence while the European Union decided on Tuesday to keep Russian sanctions in place, maintaining pressure on Moscow.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during a telephone call with President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, stressed Moscow’s “responsibility” to act as a moderating influence over the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.
The pro-Kiev regional government of Donetsk based in the government-controlled city of Mariupol accused pro-Russian separatists from the “Donetsk People’s Republic” of shelling the school.
Four adults were killed, it said in a statement. Six more died when another shell struck a minibus at a bus stop about 500 metres from the school.
The strike happened right after the school’s 70 pupils lined up for an assembly to mark the first day of class – held nationally on September 1 but pushed back by rebel authorities because of the conflict.
Official rebel website DNR Today blamed the attack on Ukrainian artillery, claiming rebels do not possess the relevant weaponry and saying two security guards at the school were among the victims.
Russian media and separatist websites showed footage of rebels launching attacks from positions in apartment buildings near the airport.
Amnesty International in a statement urged Ukrainian and rebel forces to “immediately end indiscriminate attacks in residential areas”, adding that both sides shared the blame for endangering civilians.
Crisis-hit Ukraine and the European Union will try on Thursday to forge a joint stance ahead of crunch talks with Russia in the latest gas war with its westward-leaning neighbour.
The meeting of Ukraine and EU energy officials in Brussels became even more critical after EU member Slovakia reported a 50 per cent drop in Russian supplies following its decision to divert imports to Ukraine to help ease its spreading fuel shortage.
Europe’s top energy envoy will then try on Friday to convince both the Kiev and Moscow gas chiefs, during talks in Berlin, to strike a compromise before winter forces Ukraine to consider tapping into the Russian gas bound for Europe.
Jens Stoltenberg, the new NATO chief who took office on Wednesday, argued in his opening remarks that “Russia maintains its ability to destabilise Ukraine” and “remains in breach of international law”.
A delegation of about 70 Russian officers has, however, been working with Kiev since the weekend as part of a monitoring group.
Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said that monitors, comprised of representatives from the Russian and Ukrainian militaries as well as the Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe, have begun to patrol regions most frequently hit by ceasefire violations.