KRAMATORSK, UKRAINE —
Editor's note: On the eve of planned peace talks in Minsk, at least 12 people died amid battles in the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk Tuesday. Most of the victims were hit by rockets that apparently were fired by separatist rebels trying to dislodge Ukrainian government forces. The rockets were aimed at Kramatorsk's airport and military targets, but some went astray. Some fell in civilian neighborhoods, among ordinary people trying to carry on with some form of everyday life. VOA correspondent Daniel Schearf was on the scene and filed this report.
"So, who is shelling Donetsk now?" asked a man in a blue jacket and black winter cap. "Who's living there? Terrorists?"
He apparently supported the separatist in Ukraine's prolonged and bloody conflict.
"This guy is a provocateur!" shouted an old man with thick glasses. "I see him everywhere."
"Hey old man, I'll bite your ear off," the man in blue replied.
The older man's wife stepped between them to avoid a confrontation and cried out to the man in blue, "I won't let you do that." She pushed him away as a crowd angrily denounced the blue-jacketed man as a "provocateur" -- someone trying to instigate a fight, or worse.
The crowd, which grew smaller as militiamen warned of the danger, favored the Ukraine central government in the conflict between Kyiv and the separatists holding Donetsk and other parts of eastern Ukraine.
"Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!" one women shouted - a familiar cry on the sidelines of the battle.
This kind of argument has been repeated over and over again in Ukraine since April, when intense fighting began between the pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainians loyal to Kyiv.
This, however, was a particularly surreal encounter.
The "provocateur" and his detractors were arguing just across the street from a rocket that narrowly missed an apartment complex, ending up instead poking out of the ground.
The symbol of violence reminded some of the ordnance that gets tossed around in cartoons, where "BOOM!" is just a word on the screen, or on a page of a comic book. This rocket, though, was real.
And there was nothing funny about the death that rained down on residential neighborhoods in Kramatorsk Tuesday, one day before statesmen from France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine are due to meet in Belarus for another try to end the fighting.
The deputy chief of police, Lieutenant Colonel Kiva Il'ya, told VOA that about 20 rockets hit the city, but almost half failed to explode. He said they were fired from Horlovka, a rebel-controlled town, but he thinks the blame lies elsewhere.
The direction the rockets came from, the police officer said, "honestly is from Moscow." He said the attack was "initiated by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” Russia's president.
Russia supports the rebels' fight against western-backed authorities in Kyiv, but denies arming them, while civilians get killed in the crossfire.
The airport and Ukraine's military headquarters in the area were the rebels' main targets. But most of the casualties were civilians: at least seven civilians and five soldiers killed and 63 people wounded.
One woman, who gave her name as Miroslava, was at her apartment in Kramatorsk with her newborn daughter.
“My daughter and I were at home," Miroslava said, still distraught. "We live on the fifth floor. We heard the 'boom' far away, then 'boom' again - closer.
" 'Boom, boom,' then everything started to blow up,” she said. “Everything started to blow up! Everything started to explode. We were in the hall closet. Everything started to fall down on us.”
The young mother was packing her belongings, hoping to leave Kramatorsk, because she and her child no longer feel safe.
Others in the apartment complex are also leaving Krasmatorsk, hoping to escape the violence.
When the first tweets appeared, saying there was an explosion, we tried to get information from military spokesmen.
A press officer said he was in a bunker, and was not able yet to confirm what had happened. He told us by telephone, “If you can, hide!” Then he hung up.
It was difficult to confirm the airport had been attacked without driving out to the scene. We were barred from reaching the military portion of the airport, but word spread of another possible rocket barrage, so we left quickly.
Rebels are trying to advance on Kramatorsk after gaining ground in their effort to reach Debaltseve, a strategic city that stands between the two main rebel-controlled cities, Donetsk and Luhansk.
If Debaltseve falls, Kramatorsk could be next.
But that is the big picture.
Some observers say Tuesday's shower of rockets was more likely a move by the separatists and their supporters to gain leverage ahead of the talks in Minsk.
There are hopes for a new cease-fire, and a demilitarized line of control separating the two sides, But if that line is drawn, it will be determined by where the rebels are tomorrow, and by who blinks first.