by Olena Goncharova
A Ukrainian volunteer fires at pro-Russian separatists near the Donetsk airport, Jan.3, 2015.
Fighting around Donetsk intensified over the weekend with heavy shelling on both sides as a series of peace talks planned for Berlin and Astana this week were overshadowed by increasingly combative rhetoric. A gas pipeline caught fire after it was hit by a shell and Ukraine sealed off a number roads into separatist-held areas in response to the fierce fighting.
“Honestly speaking I'm tired of all these negotiations,” the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic Oleksandr Zakharchenko said.
“People who don't keep their words...well, I don't know. We are ready for any talks. But in case it would be impossible to solve the conflict peacefully, we are ready to fight."
Zakharchenko went on to claim his Kremlin-backed fighters had killed and wounded some 200 Ukrainian soldiers in the past 24 hours.
Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Anti-Terrorist Operation headquarters, said pro-Russian fighters had attacked the Ukrainian held terminal of Donetsk airport, 15 km outside the city, which remains the insurgents’ largest stronghold.
According to Lysenko, pro-Kremlin separatists opened fire on Ukrainian force positions more than 63 times on Jan. 11. He said that the Debaltseve-Artemivsk, Horlivka-Artemivsk, Donetsk-Kurakhove and Donetsk-Mariupol roads had been sealed off.
“After the attack, however, the Ukrainian army holds the line and the airport is currently under control of the Ukrainian forces,” Lysenko told at the news conference on Jan. 12.
The Ukrainian army reported no casualties within the last 24 hours, but said two soldiers were wounded in the fighting.
According to a Kyiv Post source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, massed rocket and mortar fire can be heard echoing across Donetsk, with shelling particularly focused on Kyivsky and Petrovsky districts and the areas surrounding the airport.
“I was in Petrovsky district yesterday afternoon (on Jan. 11) and the shells were coming down a kilometer away from us,” he said. “There are rumors that the Ukrainian army may try to take the city soon, but it’s totally unconfirmed.”
Donetsk residents’ fears are being stoked by Russian leaders, who claim Ukraine is planning to escalate the conflict.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Jan. 12 that Russia had information the Ukrainian military is preparing another plan to solve the conflict in the southeast of the country with the force.
"There is information, very alarming information, that we are now double-checking, that security forces are preparing another stage of the military solution to the problem in the foreseeable future. This would be a disaster," Lavrov told a Moscow press conference.
Russian lawmaker Aleksei Pushkov, who heads the foreign affairs committee at Russia’s lower house of parliament, said that throughout Sunday, Jan. 11 "Ukraine was bombing Donbas in a most 'civilized' manner: 5 were killed, including two children," according to his Twitter post.
His remarks contradicted a report by the Russian-backed Donetsk city council however, which reports one civilian was killed and nine wounded since Jan. 9.
The leaders of Donetsk People’s Republic earlier said that Ukrainian government forces had pounded the Donetsk suburbs with artillery about 30 times since Jan. 11.
On Jan. 12 Serhiy Pashynsky, who heads the parliamentary committee on national security and defense, said he had received reports claiming that more and more pro-Russian troops are appearing in the region.
“The situation in the anti-terrorist zone has worsened recently,” Pashynsky said in Kyiv on Jan. 12. “We have the information that the terrorist groups and Russian (army) exceeded the size of Ukrainian military. It happened for the first time.”
His remarks coincided with a number of videos being posted on social media showing recently arrived Muslim fighters from Chechnya and other regions of the North Caucasus in the centre of Donetsk.
The United Nations estimates that more than 4,808 people have been killed in the country’s war zone since April, while 610,413 have been internally displaced.