Pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian government forces have abandoned all pretense of adhering to a cease-fire agreed to a month ago as the rebels have stepped up their assault on the Donetsk airport in hopes of gaining control of eastern Ukraine's most important transport hub.
A spokesman for the National Security and Defense Council reported Tuesday that five government soldiers had died in the fighting over the past 24 hours. Col. Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kiev that the separatists had also suffered casualties in the escalating battle and confirmed that Ukrainian troops had returned fire after being attacked by multiple Grad rockets launched by "terrorists and Russian mercenaries."
Fighting has died down in much of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk since a Sept. 5 agreement brokered in the Belarus capital of Minsk called for both sides to cease hostilities and exchange prisoners. But a rebel push for control of the badly damaged airport has steadily intensified, exposing those still hunkered down in the city that was formerly home to a million people to battle hazards.
An Associated Press reporter in Donetsk witnessed the Russian-backed separatists fighting for their proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk firing artillery from the rooftop of a nine-story apartment building overlooking the airport grounds, drawing return fire from government troops who still hold the facility, the news agency said.
A statement from the separatist-controlled city government in Donetsk reported four civilians killed in the artillery exchanges since Monday.
Lysenko also reported that unmanned aircraft had been spotted over Mariupol, the steel-producing port on Ukraine's Sea of Azov coast that is the government's most important functioning industrial site in southeastern Ukraine. Russian paratroopers backing the separatists last week bolstered their forces camped about 10 miles east between Mariupol and Novoazovsk, which the pro-Moscow gunmen overran in August.
As the shaky cease-fire has failed to quell the most intensive fighting in and around Donetsk, government officials fear the separatists are regrouping for a fresh offensive to take Mariupol and the rest of the seaside corridor that would connect mainland Russia with the Crimean peninsula that the Kremlin seized and annexed seven months ago.
Ukraine has scheduled parliamentary elections for Oct. 26, and the Moscow-backed separatists are suspected of aiming to control enough Ukrainian territory by then to prevent voting in the areas they hold in order to undermine the legitimacy of the election. Although hundreds of thousands of eastern Ukraine residents have fled the fighting, the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk regions were home to 8.5 million before the conflict, representing about 18% of the country's population.
There have also been increasing confrontations over the past few weeks between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine activists in Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million that had largely been at peace during the fighting in neighboring regions.