Ukraine crisis: Donetsk and Luhansk 'facing siege'

Women and children shelter near Mariupol, in the government-controlled south of Donetsk region Image copyright AFP
Image caption Many of those who have left their homes in Donetsk and Luhansk regions are seeking shelter in places further from the fighting

Civilians in eastern Ukraine are preparing for a siege as government forces close in on the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Residents are stockpiling food and supplies and are sleeping in basements, with reports suggesting Luhansk is virtually surrounded and without power.

Nine civilians were reported killed in Donetsk and Luhansk on Saturday.

The region has been unstable since April, when rebels in the east declared independence from Kiev.

More than 1,500 people are believed to have been killed since fighting began.

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Media captionUkraine Defence Minister Valeriy Heletey said Kiev's forces will emerge victorious against pro-Russian rebels

The downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July has heightened tensions and failed to stem the fighting.

Russia, which annexed Ukraine's Crimea region in March, has been accused of arming the rebels and has been targeted by US and EU sanctions. Russia denies the accusations.

The situation is most extreme in Luhansk, where three civilians have been killed and eight wounded in the past 24 hours, reports say.

Several residential buildings, a school and a supermarket were damaged by permanent shelling, local TV reported.

Almost 50,000 households in Luhansk still have no electricity, 5,000 households have no water and more than 4,000 households have no gas, Kiev-based Kanal 5 said.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Luhansk is reported to be virtually surrounded, with frequent shelling by Ukrainian forces, power cuts and food shortages
Image copyright AP
Image caption In the Donetsk region, where pro-Russian rebels hold sway, Saturday saw parades and celebrations to mark Paratroopers' Day
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption As a much bigger city than Luhansk, Donetsk is harder to isolate. Trains to Moscow are still running
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Outside the city, though, Ukrainian government forces patrol the roads in an effort to assert control

In Donetsk, a reporter for the AFP news agency saw the body of a dead woman lying in a quiet residential street after mortar explosions.

The Ukrainian government has made large gains in the east since President Petro Poroshenko was inaugurated, and has vowed to reclaim areas held by the rebels.

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Media captionThe BBC's Jonathan Beale joins investigators at the MH17 crash site

Crash site inspections

In the midst of the fighting, international experts are continuing their work at the site of the MH17 crash.

Dutch and Australian police are combing through the wreckage at the site, near the towns of Shakhtarsk and Torez, for as many as 80 bodies thought to remain there.

Inspectors were forced to abandon their work on Saturday as shelling continued nearby.

The US has accused the pro-Russian rebels in the area of shooting down the airliner with a Russian-made surface-to-air missile.

Russia says Ukrainian government forces are responsible.