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Ukraine, pro-Russia fighters trade blame over aid worker's death

Ukraine, pro-Russia fighters trade blame over aid worker's death
Smoke rises from the artillery-battered facilities at Donetsk's international airport on Oct. 3 as fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russia separatists intensified. (Darko Vojinovic / Associated Press)

Fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russia gunmen raged around Donetsk's international airport Friday, a day after the artillery battle spilled into the nearby city and killed a Swiss aid worker with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The fierce battle for control of what was Ukraine's second-largest airport and the killings of at least two dozen people in Donetsk suburbs this week were the most blatant evidence that a Sept. 5 cease-fire is being violated by both sides.

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Leaders of the separatists' self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic have openly conceded they are trying to wrest the airport from government control. Russian media this week quoted the breakaway region's self-declared prime minister, Alexander Zakharchenko, as saying the separatist forces control 90% of the airport territory.

In Kiev, Col. Andriy Lysenko of the National Security and Defense Council said two Ukrainian servicemen had been killed in fighting in the previous 24 hours. He said government forces holding the airport had undergone a troop rotation in recent days and were firmly in control of the facility.

Sergei Prokofiev International Airport was a modern glass-and-steel terminal upgraded four years ago ahead of Donetsk's hosting of a world soccer tournament in 2012. Recent images of the facility, which has been closed since May because of the fighting, show the main terminal as a shattered skeleton after five months of artillery exchanges.

Still, the separatists regard its capture as a priority as the runways would allow aerial resupply by their Russian backers, who currently funnel arms and fighters by land from Russia's neighboring Rostov region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin denies his government has been arming and instigating the battles in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine, although NATO satellite images have shown convoys of Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers crossing into Ukraine from Russia.

Fighting around the Donetsk airport flared nearly a week ago, in spite of the now month-old cease-fire that had largely tamped down clashes while both sides stood down and exchanged prisoners. Ukraine's State Security Service reported Friday that the separatists continue to hold more than 500 Ukrainian prisoners, including six journalists.

Shelling hit a suburban Donetsk schoolyard and bus stop on Wednesday, killing at least 11 adults. Fresh artillery barrages on Thursday hit areas closer to the separatist-held city center, including a shell that exploded outside the Red Cross office, killing 38-year-old administrative worker Laurent DuPasquier, the Geneva-based aid agency reported.

"We are deeply shocked by this tragic loss," Red Cross operations director Dominik Stillhart said in a statement.

The Kiev office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said its monitors stationed in Donetsk heard the incoming shell shortly before 6 p.m. Thursday and were notified by the Red Cross office 15 minutes later that one of its staff members had been killed. The OSCE report said DuPasquier had been standing in the street outside the aid agency's office. News agency photographs of the blast scene showed the Red Cross office to be reinforced by a stone wall.

Separatist leader Andrei Purgin told foreign news agencies in Donetsk that the shell came from government-held territory. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin blamed the aid worker's death on "terrorists," referring to the Russia-backed gunmen occupying Donetsk regional government offices.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement after learning of DuPasquier's death. He warned that a rash of recent fatalities around Donetsk "underscore the fragility of the current cease-fire and the importance of ensuring a secure environment in southeastern Ukraine that will allow humanitarian actors to carry out their work and deliver critical assistance to those most in need."

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