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Civilians dodge artillery fleeing Ukraine war epicentre

Debaltseve (Ukraine) (AFP) - Civilians fleeing the besieged east Ukrainian town of Debaltseve came under withering artillery fire from pro-Russian separatists on Sunday, with security forces vowing to fight to the end to defend the key transport hub.

A punishing barrage of shells fell around a three-vehicle convoy entering the town, which the rebels claim to have surrounded, blowing out the windows of one bus and lightly wounding two drivers, an AFP correspondent said.

"Sixty civilians have been evacuated since this morning," said policeman Yevgen Lukhaniv, 38, commanding a checkpoint on the only road into the town that is still open and under the control of the Ukrainian army.

"People are fleeing because the shelling is non-stop. There's no water, electricity or heating," he said of the town that was previously home to around 25,000 people.

The strategic hub is roughly halfway between the main rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk. A train line connecting the three towns would be vital for any separatist economy that might emerge from the fighting.

But for now, with rebels pushing a renewed offensive in recent weeks and a September truce in tatters, angry residents can see no end to the trauma of life in the current epicentre of a nine-month conflict that has killed at least 5,100 people, according to the United Nations.

The town's streets are almost empty of civilians, but troops are everywhere.

"We've evacuated around 40 people, we didn't keep a precise count," volunteer Natalia Voronkeva said.

"A shell landed close to one of our buses. People were inside but thank God they could get out between explosions. A 14-year-old girl and two drivers were wounded," she said, adding that one bus had been destroyed.

- Fight to the end -

Ukraine's defence minister Stepan Poltorak said on Saturday that insurgent fighters had "partial" control of the town, but Kiev denied rebel claims that they had surrounded around 8,000 Ukrainian troops there.

"There are no separatists in the town," policeman Lukhaniv said.

"The police and soldiers will not concede the town, we'll stay to the end," he said, as a mortar shell landed nearby.

Soldiers huddle in front of a music school, with one of them saying "the situation in the town is unclear," declining to give his name.

Marina and her 15-year-old daughter seek refuge in a police station as two mortar shells come crashing down nearby.

"I don't want to leave, I have everything here. What would I do without money?"

Many residents' fear has been overtaken by anger.

"I haven't been able to change my clothes since January 21," Alla, 69, whose current home is in a cellar, said.

"We can hardly wash our hands," she said. "They gave us a generator but for two days we had no light at all."

- This isn't New Russia -

Emergency services bring much-needed water, which handfuls of haggard civilians emerge to collect.

"I don't support anyone," Alla said. Under (pro-Moscow former president Viktor) Yanukovych, there wasn't all this, and Crimea was still ours."

Seeking temporary shelter from a sudden volley of shells while on his way to collect water, Sergiy Zelenyev said: "Where can I go? If I leave my house, then what?"

At least one civilian was killed and 10 wounded in fighting on Saturday, but the toll in the sprawling town may well be higher.

"We don't want the National Guard, the (separatist) Donetsk Republic, we don't want anyone, we want calm to return," Lyudmila, 69, who has been living in a shelter for six months, said.

A 50-year-old mother of four who identified herself as Nika has been fighting with the volunteer Donbass battalion since May.

"My youngest is 15. My son is also fighting in (strategic coastal city) Mariupol," she told AFP. "I'm fighting for all the children, not just my own."

"We didn't go over there, to Russia.... Donbass is ours, Donetsk, Lugansk, this isn't New Russia, this is Ukraine. We're fighting for peace in our country."