DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — Pro-Russian rebels pressed Friday to seize a key airport in eastern Ukraine despite fierce resistance by government forces.
An AP reporter on Friday saw three rebel tanks firing their cannons at the main terminal of Donetsk airport, where government forces have holed up. Sniper shots rang around the area.
Rebels have made some gains in the area near the airport, seizing some buildings on its fringes and using them to target the main terminal.
Fighting for the airport has intensified this week, threatening to derail the truce declared Sept. 5. A follow-up deal which called for both parties to pull back their artillery to create a buffer zone hasn't been implemented.
"Since the ceasefire was signed on September 5th, continued violence has killed well over 200 people, many of them innocent men, women and children," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington. "We call on all parties to take all feasible precautions to prevent the loss of innocent life, comply with international humanitarian law, and respect the facilities of humanitarian organizations."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov early Friday, expressing his concern about the intensifying violence in eastern Ukraine, she added.
Kiev and the West have asserted that Moscow is fueling the separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine by providing arms and personnel, something Russia denies.
Ukraine's ambassador to the United Nations, Yuriy Sergeyev, told reporters Friday that "it is evident that Russia demonstrates little resolve to fully comply with obligations under the Minsk arrangements."
He said Russia still regularly shells Ukrainian military and civilian areas and the failure to follow the agreement "would be absolutely disastrous."
"So far, positions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been shelled about 800 times," he said. "As a result of these attacks, about 40 Ukrainian servicemen were killed and about 200 wounded."
The pro-Russian rebels, in turn, have accused the Ukrainian government forces of breaching the truce and shelling residential areas of Donetsk.
Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko said two Ukrainian servicemen have been killed and another nine wounded since Thursday. He said that Ukrainian forces at the airport have undergone rotation and firmly stood their ground.
The airport, located just north of Donetsk, the largest city in the east, gives the Ukrainian forces a convenient vantage point to target rebel positions. Its loss would be a major blow to Ukraine and would also allow the rebels to receive large cargo planes with supplies in addition to truck convoys from Russia.
Residential areas in Donetsk have been caught in the crossfire. A Red Cross staffer died Thursday when a shell landed near the group's office in Donetsk.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement late Thursday, saying the aid worker's death, along with the shelling of a school that killed three people earlier this week, "underscore the fragility of the current cease-fire and the importance of ensuring a secure environment in south-eastern Ukraine that will allow humanitarian actors to carry out their work and deliver critical assistance to those most in need."
Cara Anna in New York and Mathew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.