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Ukraine cease-fire unraveling; 11 killed at schoolyard and bus stop

Ukraine cease-fire unraveling; 11 killed at schoolyard and bus stop
Six people were killed by artillery shells that landed at a Donetsk bus stop near an elementary school on Wednesday in an attack that Ukrainian government and separatist leaders blamed on each other. (Darko Vojinovic / Associated Press)

At least 11 adults were killed in Ukraine on Wednesday when artillery shells struck a schoolyard and bus stop in suburban Donetsk on the belated first day of school for the city at the center of a pro-Russia rebellion against rule from Kiev, Russian and Ukrainian news agencies reported.

The blasts at Donetsk School No. 57 and at the nearby bus stop detonated when all 70 schoolchildren were inside the building, RIA Novosti news agency reported.

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At least one teacher was among the dead, and news agencies said another of the casualties was a gunman with the Russian-backed separatist militia that has been fighting government forces for control of eastern Ukraine since March. City authorities in Donetsk reported on their website that six people were killed at the bus stop.

A Russian Foreign Ministry official, Konstantin Dolgov, accused Ukrainian military officials of "particular cynicism" in the shelling of the school grounds on the first day local authorities were attempting to start the school year already delayed a month by the hostilities.

The latest fatalities, which Ukraine government forces in turn blamed on the Russian-backed separatists, suggested that a Sept. 5 cease-fire agreed to by the two sides is unraveling. The separatists have been waging fierce assaults on Donetsk international airport for the last five days, and a leader of the rebellion told Interfax news agency that his fighters were close to seizing the strategic venue.

"In two, at most three, days the Donetsk airport will come under our control," Alexander Zakharchenko, purported prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, was quoted as telling the Russian news agency.

In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, a spokesman for the National Security and Defense Council insisted the airport, which has been closed since May, remained in government hands.

Col. Andriy Lysenko said the Ukrainian military hadn't suffered any fatalities over the previous two days, although five soldiers were wounded in Wednesday's fighting over the airport. He said the government troops had "brilliantly defended" their hold on what was Ukraine's second-largest airport until the rebellion began five months ago.

The Associated Press reported from Donetsk that although its reporter couldn't get close to the airport due to the artillery exchanges, shells could be heard coming from government positions outside the airport, suggesting that Ukrainian troops may have lost control of part or all of it.

The cease-fire signed four weeks ago in Minsk, the Belarus capital, called for an end to hostilities and a nearly 20-mile zone of separation between the Ukrainian government troops and rebel forces who Kiev officials and their Western allies contend are armed and instigated by Moscow.

Fighting had died down in the first two weeks of the truce but has flared anew in recent days, bringing the "peacetime" death toll to nearly 70 since the accord was signed. United Nations human rights observers reported this week that at least 3,500 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since April.

Russian troops that had stood down in early September after taking the coastal town of Novoazovsk have reinforced their positions and moved closer to the port city of Mariupol, the Ukrinform news agency reported, quoting a statement from the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine.

"All local terrorists from Novoazovsk are redeployed to roadblocks closer to Mariupol. More than 100 militants arrived in Novoazovsk to replace them," the border guards' report stated.

Mariupol is a major steel-producing city from which Ukraine ships goods through the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, all the more vital to the Kiev economy after the loss of Crimea and its military and civilian ports.

The government of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had expressed fears before the Sept. 5 cease-fire that the Russian troops who came through the border in late August were intent on conquering the strategic swath of Azov coastline all the way to Crimea, to provide a supply corridor from the Russian mainland to its newly annexed peninsula.

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