Ukraine: bus shelled in Donetsk as army loses control of airport

Goverment forces withdraw from Donetsk airport as up to 13 die in morning bus attack

A bus in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk has been hit by a mortar or shell, leaving between six and 13 people dead.

The attack came as Ukrainian government forces withdrew from the new terminal at Donetsk airport, territory over which they have fought fiercely with pro-Russian rebels for months.

Photographs posted to social media platform Twitter showed dead and injured people lying on the bus and on the street nearby after it was hit this morning.

“Twelve people were killed in the trolleybus and another who was in a car that was passing nearby,” the Agence France Presse news agency reported a local official as saying.

Other media reports said six-eight people were killed in the attack.

Kiev government forces withdrew from the new terminal at the nearby airport, a symbolic target where heavy fighting has been taking place for months.

Six Ukrainian servicemen had been killed in the past 24 hours in fighting there, Kiev officials said.

"Yesterday the decision was taken to leave the territory of the terminal for new positions," Vladislav Seleznyov said. "Fierce fighting continues. We continue to control the southern part of the airport ... we left the new terminal because it looks like a sieve and there's simply nowhere to hide there," he said.

The latest developments come after Russia and Ukraine agreed to pull back heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine behind an agreed demarcation line after high-level talks in Berlin.

Amid fresh clashes on Wednesday, foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia agreed the move following a meeting with their French and German counterparts.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said a truce remained elusive but spoke of “noticeable progress” after the talks at a government-owned villa near Berlin.

Buffer zone

The agreement revives a crucial element of last September’s ceasefire in Minsk, foreseeing a 15km artillery buffer zone on each side of the front line.

“Today we have finally agreed that the demarcation line mentioned in the Minsk agreement is the line from where the withdrawal of heavy weapons needs to take place now,” said Mr Steinmeier late on Wednesday evening.

He warned that it was now up to the players in the region whether the deal “would remain printed paper (or) will also change the situation on the ground”.

OSCE mediators will continue their work to ensure implementation of further provisions of the Minsk agreement before holding final peace talks in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana.

Separately, Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that "strong support" for the pullback was an important outcome of the Berlin meeting.

But he added that foreign ministers in Berlin did not discuss the sanctions that the west has imposed on Russia over the Ukraine crisis.

“The sanctions are not our problem,” he said. “It is the problem of those who introduced them and now do not know how to extricate themselves.”

Ahead of the talks, Kiev, the United States and Nato accused Russia of continuing to send troops and heavy weaponry to support rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko cut short his visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, accusing Moscow of sending into Ukrainian territory more than 9,000 ground troops, 500 tanks, heavy artillery and armed personnel carriers.

“If this is not aggression, what is?” he asked an audience in Davos, showing a shrapnel-scarred piece of a bus that was allegedly hit by rebel shelling this month, killing 13 passengers.

Audience applauds

The audience applauded when Mr Poroshenko described what Russia should do to end a conflict that has killed more than 4,800 people and displaced about one million: “Stop supplying weapons. Stop supplying ammunition. Withdraw the troops and close the border. A very simple peace plan.”

Mr Poroshenko’s early departure from Davos came amid a new influx of Russian troops crossing into rebel-held parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Besides the airport, heavy exchanges of artillery fire were reported at other points close to the line demarcating government- and rebel-held territory according to a September “ceasefire” deal.

The combatants accuse each other of breaking the pact, and of firing shells into residential areas which kill and injure civilians almost every day.

In Brussels, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said Russia's military was moving "back and forth over the border" and now had "a high number of forces on the border".

Nato was now seeing “an increase in Russian equipment . . . tanks, artillery, armoured vehicles and advanced air defence systems,” Mr Stoltenberg said.

In Kiev, the visiting commander of the US army in Europe, Ben Hodges, said it was "irrefutable that [the insurgents] are getting direct support from Russia".

"It is very clear from the capabilities that the proxies [rebels] have used against Ukrainian security forces, the type of artillery, modern equipment, the amount of ammunition," Lt Gen Hodges said, adding that some of the high-tech weaponry could only be operated by trained specialists, not a rag-tag militia.

Moscow denies such accusations, however, insisting that any Russians fighting in Ukraine are volunteers, and that all rebel weapons were seized from government forces and stocks.

‘Present facts’

“If you allege this so confidently, present the facts. But nobody can present the facts, or doesn’t want to,” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow before flying to Berlin.

He insisted the militants would withdraw heavy weapons to areas stated in the September deal agreed in Minsk, but did not commit Russia to closing its border with rebel-held areas – a condition that Ukraine and the West say is crucial.

“Russia will do all it can to achieve an immediate ceasefire,” he said.

“Western countries should urge the Ukrainian leadership not to allow recourse to military conflict. I hope common sense will prevail.”

Earlier on Wednesday, German chancellor Angela Merkel played down suggestions that Wednesday night's four-way talks would pave the way for a summit of the countries' leaders.

“We don’t want another meeting of presidents that yields no results,” she said.

“I don’t want to get hopes up too much . . . It is clear that the ceasefire is getting more and more fragile.”