East Ukraine city dying under siege

By Yuras Karmanau

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Aug. 4 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

A woman walks past a damaged school in the city of Lisichansk, Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, July 26, 2014.

Dmitry Lovetsky, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

DONETSK, Ukraine — Residents say the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk is dying. The power grid was completely down Monday, the city government said, and fuel is running dry.

Store shelves are emptying fast, and those who haven't managed to flee must drink untreated tap water. With little medicine left, doctors are sending patients home.

As Ukrainian government forces slowly tighten their ring around the city — one of two major pro-Russian rebel strongholds — traveling in and out has become a perilous undertaking.

In an impassioned statement released over the weekend, mayor Sergei Kravchenko described a situation that is becoming more unsustainable by the day.

"As a result of the blockade and ceaseless rocket attacks, the city is on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe," Kravchenko said. "Citizens are dying on the streets, in their courtyard and in their homes. Every new day brings only death and destruction."

Luhansk, a city of more than 400,000 people at peacetime, now has seen its population dwindle as citizens flee violence and deprivation. Located about an hour's drive from Russia, which Ukraine insists is supplying rebels with weapons and manpower, Luhansk is being fiercely fought over by all sides of the conflict.

Shelling is a daily occurrence and the targets apparently quite random. On Saturday, eight buildings were damaged by rockets. These included a school, a supermarket and several multistory apartment blocks, Luhansk city government said.

Last week, a crucial electrical transformer in Luhansk was hit by a shell, leading to an 80 percent drop in power supplies, according to a report issued Monday by an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitoring mission.

Rebels accuse the army of waging a vicious bombing campaign against the civilian population. Authorities deny they have used artillery against residential neighborhoods and in turn accuse rebels of shelling civilians as a way of discrediting the army. This claim is faithfully repeated by almost all Ukrainian media, although it has been questioned by Human Rights Watch and others.

With gas reserves all but exhausted, even those willing to brave a drive out of the city for supplies struggle to refill their cars.

A little is getting through all the same, mainly from Russia. Pro-rebel online television station Luhansk-24 on Sunday carried a report about a consignment of medicinal supplies reaching the city from the southern Russian city of Saratov.

This was a visible reminder that supply lines to Russia remain intact. With clashes taking place at several spots surrounding the city, however, maintaining a steady convoy of goods is complicated.

The fight for control over the frontier has been bitter.

Authorities concede that more than 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the Russian-Ukrainian border remains in rebel hands. The government says that Russia has been flagrantly smuggling large amounts of heavy weaponry and manpower to aid the separatist cause.

Sandwiched between the border and rebel fighters, government forces have succumbed to routine defeats and humiliations, even as they appear to slowly gain the upper hand in the fight to regain control of the last rebel strongholds.

On Monday, a Russian border security official said more than 400 Ukrainian soldiers crossed into Russia.

The Russian official said the soldiers deserted the Kiev government and that the Russian side had opened a safe corridor. A Ukrainian military official, who did not give a number for the soldiers involved, said the troops were forced into Russian territory by rebel fire after running out of ammunition.

Border control official Vasily Malayev later said 180 of the soldiers were being returned to Ukraine at their own request.

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