SLAVIANSK Ukraine (Reuters) - Only one of the Ukrainian army checkpoints encircling the separatist stronghold of Slaviansk, where a military operation was in its third day on Thursday, was letting traffic through - most on its way out.
Beyond it, the sporadic boom of heavy artillery shelling in the northern outskirts punctuated an eerie calm in the mostly unscathed center of the sun-drenched town, where residents on bicycles and pushing strollers weaved their way through rebel roadblocks of felled trees, sand bags and rusted cars.
Nobody jumped at the sound.
“We’re learning to live with it,” Vlad Cherbanyuk, a car mechanic whose 6-year-old daughter was chasing pigeons under the gaze of a Lenin statue in the central square. She was dolled up in a pink dress for her godmother’s birthday.
“Before yesterday, when they pounded all day - it was unbearable. We hid for hours in the cellar of the next-door home. You never know where or when it will fall. Every minute, ‘ Bam! Bam!’ ... Now it’s quieter.”
The Kiev government, trying to break rebellions among Russian-speakers in the eastern flatlands, says over 300 rebels had been killed in the “anti-terrorist operation” since a new offensive in and around Slaviansk began on Tuesday.
The rebels have denied this, saying losses among the Ukrainian forces exceeded theirs.
With violence continuing in Ukraine’s east and tension high between Ukraine and Russia, the crisis is certain to dominate diplomatic exchanges when President-elect Petro Poroshenko meets world leaders this week ahead of his inauguration on Saturday.
But at a hospital a few streets away, a bloodied grey-haired man was wheeled in after being hit by shrapnel in the districts where the fighting raged. He wore civilian clothes, rather than the camouflage favored by the pro-Russian militants.
“We have taken in some 15 people today. All with shrapnel wounds,” said Nina Akurova, a white-coated nurse.
Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said by telephone that a “mopping-up operation” was under way in Semyonovka and Krasniy Liman, two districts to the north of Slaviansk.
While many have fled the besieged town of some 130,000, which sits strategically at the center of the Donbass region at the crossroads of eastern Ukraine’s three main regions, the streets were alive with people going about their shopping on Thursday.
In spite of the echo of the nearby shelling and store shelves emptied of fresh products such as milk, eggs and meat, store clerks stood behind their glass counters.
“Suitcases and batteries are selling well,” said Tatiana Khavrik, 40, while attending to two armed militia men.
In the heart of the city, many homes are without water after the local utility company said a water main was damaged by the shelling. Two men wheeled containers of water home on a pushcart.
“Our families are here, our graves are here. Where would we go? It’s scary for the children, for the elderly, but if we leave, what do we come back to: ruins?” asked Antonina, 55.
“I pray that the politicians will negotiate for peace.”
Poroshenko ordered the resumption of operations by government forces soon after his May 25 election to quell the rebellion in the region, where people were largely unable or unwilling to vote in the poll.
Instead, thousands in the east voted in a makeshift referendum on self-rule organized by rebels, some of whom appealed to Moscow to annex the region as it has Crimea.
Although few of them are locals, the armed militia men are viewed benevolently by many residents who are opposed to the government that came to power after President Viktor Yanukovich was toppled in February after mass protests in Kiev.
“The situation is very tough,” said a moustachioed militant, guarding a roadblock near the hospital who said he was from Luhansk, a city further to the east on the Russian border.
“We are getting reinforcements. The locals have now woken up,” he said.
But with fighting at their doorstep and many out of work, some are wavering in their support for the separatist cause.
“The banks call and ask for payments and when we say, ‘There is no work, there’s a war here,’ They don’t care.” said Alexander Frayis, 27, a taxi driver in Slaviansk.
Even though she backed the referendum for self-rule, Larissa Akincheva, 50, said, she was no longer sure.
“Everyday things are worse,” she said. “If at first I thought, ‘Yes, everything is great. We will be with Russia.’ Then when they said they will ‘mop us up’, I began thinking maybe peace is better.”
The government forces appear to have tightened their grip, clashing with rebels in and around the main industrial hub of Donetsk and Luhansk with loss of life on both sides.
But it is unclear whether the Ukrainian military, backed by attack aircraft, is making real progress against the rebels, who are occupying strategic points in densely populated cities.
Young Ukrainian soldiers checking cars at the heavily manned checkpoint at Bilbasovka leading into Slaviansk appeared jumpy and worn out. The 50-some men were living out of eight armored personnel carriers and tents by the side of the road.
“Next time, I won’t go. I’ll quit. It’s not worth risking my life for 600 hyrvna ($50 monthly salary). We are political chess pieces,” a smoothed-cheeked soldier who like others at the checkpoint said he was from the Western city of Lviv, a stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism in a country increasingly divided between east and west.
“It gets dark at around 10 o’clock, then the music and the disco lights start up,” he said wryly referring to what he said was nightly fire from separatists who appeared to come and go at will in the surrounding fields and villages.
Another soldier complained that their mission was doomed as long as the long and porous border with Russia remained easily crossed by what he believes are volunteer fighters and weapons from Russia.
Kiev says the fighting was stirred up by Moscow, which opposes its pro-Western course, and accuses Russia of letting volunteers cross into Ukraine to fight alongside the rebels.
Moscow denies this and has called on Ukraine to open dialogue with the separatists
Although Kiev has promised to clamp down on traffic over Ukraine’s borders with Russia, no signs of additional reinforcement were visible on the Uspensk border crossing in Donetsk Province.
A border official, Sergei Pushkin, refused to comment, but said a newly installed trip wire was just for show.
“It’s what you can call, an imitation,” he said.
Additional reporting by Thomas Grove; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Eric Walsh