Ukraine rebels renew Donetsk airport offensive

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionFootage shows flames and black smoke at a refinery near Donetsk airport

Rebel forces in eastern Ukraine are conducting an offensive to capture the government-held airport in Donetsk, officials say.

Pro-Russian rebels have tried several times in recent weeks to take the airport, which lies to the north-west of the city, despite an official truce.

The Ukrainian military said the rebels were moving on "a broad front".

However a spokesman denied claims they had taken a large part of the airport and insisted it was not surrounded.

Both sides have accused each other of violations since the ceasefire was called on 5 September.

'Not surrounded'

Late on Thursday, a Swiss employee of the International Committee of the Red Cross was killed by shelling in the centre of Donetsk.

A spokesman for the aid organisation told Reuters news agency that the shell had landed near its office.

On Wednesday, four people were killed by a shell which landed on a school in Donetsk, and six died when a minibus was hit.

A spokesman for what the Ukrainian government calls its anti-terrorist operation said Ukrainian forces repelled four attacks on the airport on Wednesday evening.

A T-64 tank was destroyed and seven rebels were killed, Vladyslav Seleznyov told Kanal 5 TV.

The rebels used tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems, artillery and mortars, he said, resuming their attacks on Thursday morning with small-arms fire.

The airport is strategically important, lying just outside Donetsk, the largest city held by the rebels. Its capture by the separatists would help them to resupply.

Government forces have been using it to shell separatist positions inside the city.

A reporter for Associated Press in Donetsk said on Wednesday there were indications the government may already have lost control of the airport.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Rebel forces have made frequent attempts to take the airport

Rebel-leader Alexander Zakharchenko, speaking on Thursday, said it was now "95%" under separatist control.

But military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters that the airport was still in Ukrainian government hands and reinforcements were getting through.

"They have manpower, they have munitions and food supplies. They have everything to sustain defence," he said. "Reinforcements are coming regularly because the airport has not been surrounded."

Economy shrinks

More than 3,500 people have been killed in Ukraine in the conflict between pro-Russia separatists and the Kiev government since it began in April.

In a further sign of the economic cost, the World Bank said on Thursday that Ukraine's economy was now likely to contract by 8% this year.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The government denies suggestions the airport has already fallen

World Bank representative in Ukraine, Qimiao Fan, blamed reduced economic activity in the east. The bank had previously forecast a decline of 5%.

The fighting arose from deep divisions in Ukraine over whether the country should take a more pro-Western or pro-Moscow direction.

Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in March and separatists later declared independence in the two eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Russia denies Western accusations that it is sending heavy weaponry to the rebels or Russian soldiers to back them. But the Kremlin concedes that "volunteers" have travelled to eastern Ukraine.

Newly appointed Nato Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, called on Wednesday for Russia to change its behaviour and return "to compliance with international law and its obligations."

More on this story