Ukraine rebel Zakharchenko 'rejects truce talks'

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Media captionThe rebels are well armed and are scoring victory after victory, says the BBC's David Stern

The main pro-Russian rebel leader in eastern Ukraine says his troops are on the offensive and he does not want truce talks with Kiev.

Alexander Zakharchenko said his forces would push the front line back to the borders of Donetsk region. They are in control of the city of Donetsk.

Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Ukrainian government forces of "criminal" shelling of civilian areas.

Kiev "ordered the start of major combat operations" along the front, he said.

Earlier, Mr Zakharchenko said the rebels "will not make any attempts at ceasefire talks any more".

Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany have issued a call to end fighting.

On Thursday, Ukrainian government troops withdrew from Donetsk airport's main terminal, a scene of bitter fighting in recent weeks.

The government said the military still retained control of parts of the airport, but six soldiers had died and 16 had been wounded.

Large-scale offensive

The government and its Western allies say Russian regular troops are fighting alongside the separatists, using Russian heavy artillery and tanks. Moscow insists that only Russian "volunteers" have joined the rebels.

Mr Zakharchenko said "we'll attack right up to the borders of Donetsk region, but if I see a threat from other directions we'll neutralise it".

"Kiev doesn't understand now that we can attack in three directions simultaneously," Russian media quoted him as saying.

More than 5,000 people have been killed in fighting since the rebels seized a large swathe of Donetsk and Luhansk regions last April, UN officials say. More than a million people have been displaced.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A Grad multiple-rocket launcher in rebel-held Donetsk

A rebel statement on Friday said Ukrainian forces' shelling of Donetsk and Horlivka had killed 16 civilians in the past 24 hours.

The OSCE security organisation has confirmed that at least eight civilians died in a mortar blast at a bus stop in Donetsk. The rebels and the government traded blame for the attack, which left more than a dozen wounded.

"It is another crime against humanity, an obvious provocation aimed at undermining the peaceful political process," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

A Ukrainian military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, blamed a rebel mortar team, saying the explosion was "beyond the range of Ukrainian artillery of this type".

Later Mr Lysenko said the rebels were shelling Ukrainian forces on the outskirts of Mariupol - a port city by the Sea of Azov - intensively with artillery and tanks.

But he denied reports of a rebel tank attack there, the Ukrainian Unian news agency reported.

The BBC's David Stern in Kiev writes:

Alexander Zakharchenko's latest comments about a rebel offensive may be bluster - or they may be a sign that the war in eastern Ukraine is about to explode into a wider conflict.

The ceasefire agreed in September never fully took hold. Still, many hoped that the lower level of hostilities it introduced would last at least until spring. Or in an ideal world, provide enough of a pause for a comprehensive peace deal to be agreed upon.

But now the fighting is beginning to approach what was seen last summer. And if Mr Zakharchenko is to be believed, it could surpass even that.

The question is if, as threatened, the rebel forces succeed in reaching the boundaries of Donetsk province, will they stop there, or push on to points further west?

'Criminal orders'

In Moscow, President Putin told the Russian Security Council that Ukraine was using heavy artillery, rockets and aircraft "indiscriminately against densely-populated areas".

"The ones responsible for that are those who give such criminal orders," he said, quoted by Interfax news agency.

He said Kiev had not responded coherently to his proposal for a withdrawal of heavy weapons from the conflict zone.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Trolleybus passengers were hit when a mortar exploded at a bus stop in Donetsk

'Heaviest losses'

Rebel military spokesman Eduard Basurin said 24 rebel troops had been killed and 30 wounded in the latest fighting. He called it "the heaviest losses in our ranks" in a 24-hour period.

The Ukrainian Defence Council chief, Oleksandr Turchynov, confirmed on Friday that the rebels had launched an offensive. "The enemy will stop at nothing," he said, accusing the rebels and Russian forces of intensive shelling.

"Russian terrorist groups have essentially violated all prior ceasefire agreements... and are today assuming active offensive operations," he said.

"We are talking about active units of the Russian armed forces," he stressed. According to Kiev, 9,000 Russian troops are fighting alongside the rebels.

The fighting raged on just hours after Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany had issued a joint call for a ceasefire.

They also agreed on a line of demarcation between separatists and government forces from which both sides were meant to withdraw their forces.

Ukraine: the human cost

Image copyright AP
  • Some 5.2 million people live in conflict-affected areas and 1.4 million are considered "highly vulnerable and in need of assistance"
  • More than a million people have fled their homes with 633,523 living as displaced persons within Ukraine and 593,622 living outside Ukraine, mostly in Russia
  • More than 5,000 people have been killed in the fighting and more than 10,300 injured

Source: UN report of 9 January for refugee figures; news reports for casualty estimates

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