Monitors Sound Warning As Eastern Ukraine Fighting Continues To Surge

AVDIYIVKA, Ukraine -- International monitors in Ukraine have warned of "an incredible amount of cease-fire violations" by both sides six days into an uptick of hostilities between pro-Kyiv forces and Russia-backed separatists.

The warning comes amid fresh reports of an intensification of shelling in and around residential areas in war-torn eastern Ukraine, where dozens of people have been killed, including civilians, and scores injured since January 29.

Lamberto Zannier, secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), issued a statement on February 3 calling on both sides to "consider the fate of the trapped civilians and to prioritize their safety." He called for an immediate halt to the fighting and strict observance of the cease-fire conditions.

In Avdiyivka, a government-held city of around 22,000 residents near the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, locals told RFE/RL that the shelling overnight on February 2-3 was the worst they had seen in the current flare-up. They talked of spending the night in cellars under "nonstop" bombardment.

Early on February 3, at least six Ukrainian tanks were spotted on the move in Avdiyivka.

And several apartment buildings appeared to have been damaged overnight by artillery fire, including one whose fifth floor took a direct hit.

At the city's School No. 2, where volunteers were distributing aid, Andriy, a 25-year-old psychologist with Ukraine's emergency services, told RFE/RL that he had been busy speaking with bereaved residents.

He said he had noticed recently -- even when shelling was heaviest -- that locals "don't react" to the violence or losses of life anymore.

"It has become normal for them after three years. But it is not normal," he said. "They don't want to show their weakness."

"Everyone should be afraid," he added. "The man who is not afraid is a stupid man."

Like 'Early Days' Of Conflict

Speaking to reporters in the center of Avdiyivka on February 3 with artillery blasts punctuating his statement, Alexander Hug, head of the OSCE's Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, said the fighting was reminiscent of "the early days" of the nearly 3-year-old conflict.

"The sound we hear back is from weapons that should not be here," Hug said. "They should be long that way and the other way locked up, at least 15 kilometers behind the contact line, where the first withdrawal line stops; for larger caliber weapons, that is even further back."

Other Ukrainian regions and international aid groups are shipping humanitarian supplies to the region, where the fresh fighting has prompted major evacuation and aid efforts. Many areas are without heat or electricity in subzero temperatures.

The UN, EU, and other international players have issued urgent pleas for negotiations to avoid a "catastrophe" in a conflict that has killed more than 9,750 people since April 2014 despite a shaky, internationally brokered cease-fire.

"Deescalation is only possible, in the long run and sustainably, if weapons are withdrawn and if the distance between the fighting position is increased so that the tensions there can be reduced," the OSCE's Hug said. "Temporarily, a cease-fire must be agreed immediately so that people here in Avdiyivka can go back to normal life, that infrastructure can be repaired. These people have been without heating, without electricity...for the vast part of this week, since Sunday morning [January 29]."

"This is not normal," he added, "and it is only due to the fact that these guns are here that should have long been withdrawn."

Moscow Urged To Use Influence

On February 3, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said he had urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to use Moscow's influence to end the recent escalation in Ukraine.

Earlier on February 3, Kyiv blamed the escalation of fighting on "Russian occupational forces."

Deputy Ukrainian Prime Minister Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze's office cited 114 instances of shelling and said enemy forces were "attacking throughout" the so-called line of contact and in areas near the cities of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Mariupol. The statement said shelling damaged a school that was being used to provide heating for civilians in Avdiyivka.

Separatists have accused the pro-Kyiv side of thousands of bombardments over the past week.

On February 2, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley blamed "aggressive actions" by Russia for the fresh hostilities and reiterated Washington's commitment to keeping Western sanctions against Moscow in place.

Russia, which denies military involvement despite mounting evidence of its military and economic support for the separatists, has blamed Kyiv for the latest fighting.

The OSCE's Hug, however, accused both sides of violating the cease-fire agreements.

"We have seen on both sides an incredible amount of cease-fire violations," he said. "Cease-fire violations require guns; guns require personnel."

With contributions from Brussels and Prague