KIEV, Ukraine — A convoy of civilians fleeing the fighting in eastern Ukraine was hit Monday by what Kiev authorities said was separatist rocket fire that killed dozens.
The Grad rocket strike set on fire the line of cars and buses carrying residents of towns near the city of Luhansk that were recently recovered by Ukrainian government forces, incinerating the vehicles’ occupants, who had no chance to escape, a Ukrainian security official told journalists in Kiev.
“The rebels were expecting the convoy and destroyed it entirely,” said Col. Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council. He said the full death toll was unknown to authorities in the Ukrainian capital, but that dozens were killed. He asked that media with access to the embattled area near the Russian border refrain from conveying images of the carnage, should they reach the site of the attack. “We are asking not to show the video of it, if obtained, since it is very graphic,” he said.
The ambush, which a separatist news website denied was the work of the pro-Russia insurgents, occurred at 9:40 a.m. local time as the caravan attempted to make its way to safer territory under Ukrainian military escort, officials said. “The force of the blow on the convoy was so strong that people were burned alive in the vehicles — they weren’t able to get themselves out,” Anatoly Proshin, another military spokesman, told Ukraine’s Channel 112.
The attack followed a weekend of further government incursions into eastern Ukraine territory seized by the insurgents in March and April, after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to the country’s Crimea area and engineered its secession and March 18 annexation to Russia.
Mr. Putin has been sending mixed signals about his intentions in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which the separatists held for four months before a reinvigorated government counter-offensive began rolling them back. The militants have lost more than half of the territory they once held and are reportedly encircled in the two urban centers that are their last redoubts.
The rebellion has also been weakened by the retreat to Russia of at least three separatist leaders over the last week, leaving the flagging insurgency in the hands of less-experienced local militants opposed to rule from Kiev.
But in a sign of the anti-Kiev insurgents’ surviving firepower, a Ukrainian fighter jet was shot down Sunday as it provided air support to the campaign to oust the separatists from Luhansk, Ukrainian and Russian media reported.
Despite the defections from the rebellion’s military and political leaderships, the separatists continue to fight a fierce rear-guard action as government troops close in on them, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported from near Luhansk. It also reported over the weekend that its journalists in the area had witnessed the inflow of dozens of Russian tanks and armored vehicles and hundreds of gunmen, in what appeared to be an effort by Moscow to shore up the insurgency.
Meanwhile, a convoy carrying humanitarian aid for trapped civilians in Luhansk remained on the Russian side of the border with eastern Ukraine a week after it was dispatched from Moscow. After talks Sunday in Berlin with his counterparts from Ukraine, Germany and France, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the humanitarian nature of the aid had been established to all parties’ satisfaction after a joint inspection of the first group of trucks from the 280-vehicle convoy.
But officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose workers are escorting the aid and plan to deliver it, said they were still waiting for guarantees from the Ukrainian government and insurgents that foreign relief workers could operate safely in the area.
Many of the remaining 200,000 residents of Luhansk, once a city of 465,000, have been without electricity, running water or communications for two weeks, separatist leaders have reported on their news websites.
Irina Verigina, the Kiev-allied governor of Luhansk who has been sidelined for months by Russian separatist leaders, was quoted by CNN as saying the region didn’t want aid from Russia. “They send us tanks and Grads overnight and offer to send humanitarian aid by day,” Ms. Verigina said.Russia - Eastern Europe - Europe - Ukraine - Vladimir Putin - Moscow - Kiev - Ukraine government - Crimea