DONETSK, UKRAINE - Explosions rocked the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk Monday as government troops sought to reclaim control of the rebel stronghold, marking the first heavy fighting since Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down last week.
Intense shelling was reported near the rail station. The AFP news agency said that terrified civilians were fleeing the city, though local authorities warned them to stay indoors.
Sergei Kavtaradze, a leader of the pro-Russian separatists, said Ukrainian government forces were trying to break into the city with at least four tanks and armored vehicles.
Reuters journalists also saw two rebel tanks heading toward Donetsk railway station. A battle raged near the station, a hub of this eastern Ukraine city of 1 million.
CNN reported heavy shelling, with plumes of smoke rising on the city’s outskirts.
A Ukrainian military spokesman said the operation was in progress but would not comment on reports of troops entering Donetsk. “The active phase of the anti-terrorist operation is continuing. We are not about to announce any troop movements,” Vladyslav Seleznyov said.
Donetsk is at the heart of a rebel uprising against Kyiv rule. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has vowed to retake the city as part of what his government calls its "anti-terrorist operation" against the separatists.
Armed men in camouflage could be seen on the streets near the train station, and the sounds of explosions were audible.
Crash investigators arrive
As international horror deepened over the fate of the remains of the 298 victims of the air disaster, the first international investigators reached rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine on Monday.
Three members of a Dutch disaster victims identification team arrived in Donetsk and were expected to visit a railway station near the crash site where nearly 200 bodies have been stored in refrigerated wagons.
Rescuers said they had found a total of 251 bodies and 86 body fragments at the crash site and a second refrigerated train had arrived.
The shooting down of the airliner on Thursday has sharply deepened the Ukrainian crisis, in which separatists in the Russian-speaking east have been fighting government forces since protesters in Kyiv forced out a pro-Moscow president and Russia annexed Crimea in March.