DONETSK Ukraine (Reuters) - Pro-Russian separatists battled on Sunday to keep advancing Ukrainian government forces at bay in heavy fighting on the outskirts of Donetsk, the rebels’ main stronghold in eastern Ukraine.
Shelling by Ukrainian troops, some of them in sunflower fields outside the large industrial city, killed six people over the weekend, city officials said, as well as setting buildings ablaze and leaving shell craters in roads.
The army has all but encircled the other main rebel redoubt of Luhansk, where three civilians were killed in the latest fighting, and is trying to tighten the noose around Donetsk.
Fighting has intensified since the downing of a Malaysian airliner in rebel-held territory on July 17 and, with each side blaming the other for the deaths of the 298 crew and passengers, relations between Russia and the West are deteriorating rapidly.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to persuade the rebels to end the conflict and to ensure they do not hinder international experts trying to recover human remains from the plane’s wreckage.
“It is an unspeakable abomination that, two weeks after this crash, there are still bodies on the crash site unrecovered and the Russians have not used their influence with the separatists,” Hammond told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
“I said last week that there is one man who can snap his fingers and make this happen and he hasn’t done so. He must now do so,” Hammond said, urging Putin to cut off arms to the rebels and “stop destabilizing and interfering” in Ukraine.
Putin denies arming the rebels or trying to orchestrate events in Ukraine since the ousting of a president sympathetic to Moscow in February. He accuses the West of attempting to ‘contain’ Russia, using a Cold War-era phrase to suggest the United States wants to reduce Moscow’s global influence.
A military spokesman in the Ukrainian capital Kiev told a briefing the army had now recaptured three-quarters of the territory the rebels once controlled in their self-proclaimed ‘people’s republics’ of Luhansk and Donetsk.
But Russia has firm control of the Crimea peninsula it annexed in March and the separatists are putting up fierce resistance in the last two big cities they hold in the east.
A Reuters reporter in central Donetsk heard shelling through the night and saw the smoke from burning buildings in the outlying Petrovsky district drifting as far as the city center.
“I work in the city center. It’s easier for me to be at work than to come home. You never know if your house will still be standing when you get back,” the financial director of a small company who gave her name only as Antonina said in Petrovsky.
“I know people who have come back from work and found they have nowhere to live.”
In another outlying district, Maryinka, roads and houses were pock-marked by shells and some buildings were burnt-out carcasses. The rebels control a checkpoint there, but an abandoned military truck with the Ukrainian flag by the side of the road bore witness to the fighting there.
Streets were deserted and shelling could be heard nearby. Buildings were without electricity or running water.
“Yesterday the light went off suddenly and there was an explosion. I hid in the hallway,” said a woman who gave her name as Yevgeniya, standing outside her battered home.
“Then I heard a woman crying outside. Her son and his wife were killed by shelling. They were lying right there,” she said, pointing to a pool of blood.
Many homes in Luhansk, which is close to the border with Russia, also have no electricity or water.
The Ukrainian military said it had suffered no losses in the latest fighting.
Efforts to end the conflict, in which the United Nations says more than 1,100 people have been killed, have stalled.
The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia over its role in Ukraine but say Putin has done nothing to show he is changing policy. U.S. President Barack Obama said after speaking to Putin on Friday that “sometimes people don’t always act rationally”.
Dutch and Australian forensic experts have gained access to the site of downed Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 for three successive days and have recovered more human remains to send back to the Netherlands for forensic tests.
On Sunday they also sent some personal belongings to the government-controlled city of Kharkiv and then to the Netherlands.
“The first flight leaves tomorrow. This flight will transport what was recovered on Friday and Saturday, and the DNA material that was stored in a mortuary in Donetsk,” a statement from the Dutch mission said.
The United States says the separatists probably shot down the Boeing 777 by mistake with a Russian-supplied missile, but Moscow denies the accusation and blames the disaster on Kiev. The victims included 196 Dutch citizens, 27 Australians and 43 Malaysians.
Additonal reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kiev and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Gareth Jones and Stephen Powell