Fighting neared Donetsk Saturday, and explosions were heard within the rebel-controlled eastern city as the Ukrainian army pressed insurgents who have bolstered defenses after a string of defeats.
Russia, meanwhile, angrily criticized new sanctions imposed by the European Union following the downing of Malaysia Airline Flight 17, which crashed July 17 not far from Donetsk. U.S. and Ukrainian officials said a sophisticated Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile downed the plane, possibly fired by Russian-backed rebels.
Ukraine’s military have racked up a string of victories in recent weeks, forcing rebels to retreat to major population centers, including Luhansk and Donetsk, the largest city in the country’s southeast.
Troops retook Lysychansk, a strategically important city about 75 miles northwest of Luhansk, and on Saturday Ukrainian forces were outside Horlikva, just north of the regional center of Donetsk, according to Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s national security council.
Once they can take Horlivka, “the direct route is open for the forces of the anti-terrorist operation to the capital of the Donbass region ... the city of Donetsk,” Lysenko was quoted as saying. “The approaches to Donetsk are being blocked so that the terrorists do not get the chance to receive ammunition, reinforcements or equipment.”
U.S. officials have accused Russia of massing more troops on its border, and firing artillery into Ukraine in recent days, most likely in a bid to prevent Ukrainian troops from sealing the border and cutting off weapon supplies to rebels.
According to reports by Reuter, "the Red Cross recently made a confidential legal assessment that Ukraine is officially in a civil war, opening the door to possible war crimes prosecutions, including over the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH-17."
Russia's Foreign Ministry says the United States is among those responsible for the conflict in Ukraine because of its strong support of the Kyiv government. Russia accuses Washington of pushing Kyiv to repress Ukraine's Russian-speaking population.
U.S. President Barack Obama says Russia has supplied heavy weapons and know-how to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, and that it is likely the rebels used a missile to shoot down a Malaysia Airlines jet July 17 over eastern Ukraine.
Shelling was heard around Donetsk early Saturday. It was not immediately unclear what the damage or casualties were, but residents reported being awoken by heavy explosions.
"Last night was terrible. I was woken up at 3 a.m. by the explosions. The walls shook, the windows shook," Marina, who lives in a southern part of the city, told Reuters. "There was shooting all over the city. And it still goes on. Maybe it's a little quieter now, but it's all around."
Local officials said some buildings had been damaged, one by fire, and one woman was wounded.
In Western capitals, officials had hoped that the crash of Flight 17, the 298 victims killed and the sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union might signal a turning point in the four-month-old Russian-backed insurgency.
Instead, Moscow appears to have accelerated the supply of newer weapons and equipment across the border, and bolstered the size of forces in border regions, according to U.S. officials.
The U.S. Defense Department warned that "heavier caliber, more capable" Russian artillery systems have been seen moving closer to the Ukrainian border. The systems being moved are surface-to-surface systems for use in ground fighting, not surface-to-air systems, department spokesman Steve Warren told reporters Friday.
On Saturday, Britain's Foreign Office accused Russia of making "contradictory, mutually exclusive claims" in blaming Ukraine for the tragedy and said it was "highly likely" the separatists had brought the plane down with a Russian-supplied missile.
Two top German officials spoke out in favor of the new EU sanctions, which some member nations have criticized as being too weak.
"After the death of 300 innocent people in the MH17 crash and the disrespectful roaming around the crash site of marauding soldiers, the behavior of Russia leaves us no other choice," Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany told Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper in an interview published Saturday.
"We remain true to our course: cleverly calibrated and mutually agreed measures to raise the pressure and … a willingness to have serious talks with Russia," he was quoted as saying.
German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, meanwhile, told the Spiegel weekly in comments due to be published on Sunday that the sanctions should above all hit Russia's oligarchs, arguing that the country's political system rested on them.
"We must freeze their (bank) accounts in European capitals and deny them the ability to travel," Gabriel was quoted as saying.
Moscow Denounces New EU Sanctions
In Moscow Saturday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry denounced sanctions by the EU that imposed travel bans and asset freezes on 15 Russian officials including top security agency officials.
The EU is taking “a complete turn away from joint work with Russia on international and regional security, including the fight against the spread of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism (and) organized crime,” the ministry said in a statement.
The ministry also accused the United States of conducting “an unrelenting campaign of slander against Russia, ever more relying on open lies.”
“The United States continues to push Kyiv into the forceful repression of (Ukraine's) Russian-speaking population's discontent. There is one conclusion: the Obama administration has some responsibility both for the internal conflict in Ukraine and its severe consequences,” the ministry said in a separate statement.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said Friday he believed the Russian military and its leaders were “probably somewhat reluctant participants” in the form of warfare being used in Ukraine.
Speaking at a security forum in the western state of Colorado, Dempsey also said he was concerned that a “rising tide of nationalism” in Russia may slip into other parts of Europe.
“My fear is actually, you know if I have a fear about this, it's that Putin may actually light a fire that he loses control of," he told the Aspen Security Forum. “In other words, you know; these ethnic enclaves, there's a rising tide of nationalism and nationalism can be a very dangerous instinct and impulse. There's a rising tide of nationalism in Europe right now that has been created by, in many ways, by these Russian activities that I find to be quite dangerous."
Efforts to repatriate the 298 victims of the crash continued Saturday, as two cargo planes flew 38 more coffins out of the nearby city of Kharkiv to a forensic center in the Netherlands for identification and investigation, the AP reported.
Some victims’ remains are believed to be still at the wreckage site, east of Donetsk, but investigators and rescuers have had limited access to the site due to security concerns.
Material from Reuters and The Associated Press was used in this report.