DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — A top separatist commander in eastern Ukraine admitted Thursday that rebels have mounted rocket attacks against government troops from within residential areas but says the practice is being halted.
Vostok Battalion commander Alexander Khodakovsky said fighters using residential neighborhoods as for cover for shelling attacks will now face arrest, but he denied that the practice was commonplace.
"If there are one-off instances, believe me when I say that we will tackle this very strongly," Khodakovsky said.
A large number of homes in the eastern city of Donetsk, a main rebel stronghold, have been hit by rockets believed to be fired by government troops responding to attacks by pro-Russian rebels. Separatists have accused government forces of attacking civilians indiscriminately.
A video surfaced online this week showing rebels firing an intense barrage from a Grad multiple rocket launcher parked next to several high-rise apartment buildings. Ukrainian officials cited the amateur footage as evidence that separatists were using civilians as human shields.
Outgoing rocket fire is heard daily in the center of Donetsk, a city that once held 1 million people before hundreds of thousands fled the fighting. Those attacks were especially intense Wednesday.
A cease-fire took effect in September but it has not halted daily fighting in some key areas. The U.N. says more than 4,300 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since the conflict began in mid-April. Ukraine has accused Russia of supplying the rebels, a charge Russia denies.
Ukrainian security officials said Monday that a truce had been forged in the bitter fight for Donetsk airport, which remains under partial government control. Explosions can still heard from that area, however.
Khodakovsky accused the government of failing to keep its side of the bargain by constantly resupplying the airport troops.
"For all combat operations to end, the garrison there should abandon the positions that they hold," he said.
Separately, international monitors said Ukrainian troops and separatists in the neighboring Luhansk region had agreed to a new cease-fire beginning Friday along the line of contact.
In a phone call on Thursday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that the U.S. and Europe would continue to provide money to help Ukraine stabilize its economy, Biden's office said.
It also said they discussed "the fact that Russia and its proxies continue to block delivery of humanitarian aid from entering the conflict-affected regions of eastern Ukraine, and that Russia's actions in Ukraine have created a lawless environment where separatists are robbing pensioners and other citizens of their social benefits payments."
Peter Leonard in Kiev, Ukraine, and Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.