Fighting escalates amid peace calls
At least 41 people were killed in Ukraine's east yesterday, one of the deadliest days in the separatist war, with a bloody bus shelling in Donetsk as government forces abandoned their defence of the city's strategic airport.
In a graphic illustration of the degenerating nine-month conflict, pro-Russian rebels also paraded some 20 captured Ukrainian soldiers through Donetsk and forced them to kneel before enraged locals who threw snowballs and glass at them, some of it from the shattered bus.
The trolleybus shelling in the rebel bastion city was the day's bloodiest incident, with 13 civilians killed and Kiev alleging that ultimate blame for the tragedy rested with Russia.
The violence came only hours after peace talks in Berlin called for a ceasefire and as the toll from the conflict surpassed 5,000 dead, with a million people also forced from their homes.
Another 10,000 have been wounded by rocket and mortar strikes raining down daily on the industrial region's residential districts, Michael Bociurkiw of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe told Ukrainian radio.
With intensifying clashes rocking Donetsk airport in recent days, Ukraine's military said early Thursday that its troops had abandoned most of the site.
The airport had become the symbolic prize of the conflict, with the army and rebels continuously battling for control.
Defence officials said fighting continued around the ruins of the air hub -- once one of eastern Europe's most modern and busiest -- but they admitted that government forces controlled little more than a few isolated buildings on its outskirts.
The trolleybus shelling was among the bloodiest incidents involving civilians in recent months in a conflict that has devastated the ex-Soviet republic's industrial heartland and brought Ukraine's economy to its knees.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the attack "a monstrous crime" whose ultimate responsiblity rested with "'the party of war' in Kiev and its foreign sponsors."
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk made similar charges against Moscow, accusing the insurgents of committing "a horrible act against humanity."
The strike occurred just south of Donetsk's city centre far from the front line, with concerns having been raised over shelling that has at times moved closer in from the airport northwest of the city, putting civilians in increasing danger.
The violence came hours after the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France ended a crisis meeting in Berlin with a joint call to cease hostilities, but no breakthrough agreement to stop the bloodshed.
The talks had been held against the unpromising backdrop of fresh clashes and after Ukraine's president accused Moscow of fuelling the war with fresh troops and tanks.
US Secretary of State John Kerry accused the rebels of attempting "a blatant land grab", while Washington's UN envoy Samantha Power said Russia was pursuing an "occupation plan" in the east.