Concern mounts over Ukraine fighting as death toll hits 16

Avdiivka: The death toll from the latest escalation in fighting in Ukraine rose to 16 on Wednesday as international alarm rang out over the spike in bloodshed in the European Union’s back yard.
Government forces and pro-Russian separatists exchanged mortar and grenade fire for a fourth day on Wednesday around the flashpoint town of Avdiivka that sits just north of the rebels’ de facto capital Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian military said one of its soldiers had died while the rebels said two civilians had been killed.
The clashes have left more than 20,000 people without heat or water in freezing winter weather with no signs of relief in sight.
The sudden surge comes at a potential watershed moment for Ukraine as fears mount in Kiev that staunch US support could be set to wane with President Donald Trump looking to mend ties with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
An emergency UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday called for an immediate end to fighting in a near three-year conflict that has plunged Moscow’s relations with the West to a post-Cold War low.
The council expressed “grave concern” about the resumption of serious battles in one of the bloodiest conflicts since the 1990s Balkans wars.
“The intense fighting around Avdiivka in the last few days… is a blatant violation of the ceasefire, as stipulated by the Minsk agreements,” the EU said on Tuesday.
The deal signed in the Belarusian capital Minsk in February 2015 has been repeatedly broken but still remains the West’s best hope of bringing peace to a country that was once a bridge between Russia and the West.
The war began shortly after Ukraine ousted its Russian-backed president in February 2014 and aligned itself with the West.
The industrial hub of Avdiivka came under its first assault on Sunday by rebels seeking to recapture territory held by Kiev during the nearly three-year war.
On Wednesday, residents such as 62-year-old Larysa Mykhailivna were packing up to find shelter from the cold and violence.
“We slept very badly last night, the kids were awoken by shelling,” she said as she left town with her two granddaughters.
“A shell landed under our window but thank God it did not explode.”
The Ukrainian military on Wednesday accused the rebels of firing Grad multiple rocket systems and artillery at its positions around the northern outskirts of Donetsk.
The fighting has severely damaged a coke plant that provides heating for the blue-collar town of 25,000 people.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation and Europe (OSCE) is responsible for monitoring ceasefire violations and organising peace talks between envoys from Russia and Ukraine.
Its mission to Ukraine said that 22,000 people had been left without heating or water and electricity as temperatures dropped to minus 20 degrees Celsius.
Local official Pavlo Zhebrivskiy wrote on his Facebook page that the level of heating in the town remained low.
He added that the town had access to water but that pressure systems were too weak to make them it accessible in the higher floors of tall buildings. The conflict has killed nearly 10,000 people — more than half of them civilians — since it erupted in April 2014.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied supporting the insurgents and only admits that Russian “volunteers” and off-duty soldiers have entered the war zone of their own volition.
— AFP