DONETSK, Ukraine – Ukrainian troops have surrounded the rebel-held city of Donetsk and the insurgents are willing to accept a cease-fire in order to stave off a humanitarian catastrophe, a top rebel leader announced Saturday.
Conditions in Donetsk, the largest rebel stronghold in eastern Ukraine, were clearly deteriorating. As the thunder of artillery reverberated Saturday, the streets of the city, home to nearly 1 million people before 300,000 fled the conflict, were nearly empty of cars and pedestrians. Most stores were closed.
There was no immediate government response to the statement from Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the so-called prime minister of the Donetsk separatists, or to reports that Donetsk was surrounded. Zakharchenko’s comments could be aimed at increasing international pressure to allow in a Russian mission.
Russia, which the Ukrainian government in Kiev and Western countries allege is supporting the rebels, has called repeatedly for a humanitarian mission into eastern Ukraine. But Kiev and the West suggest that could be just a pretext to send Russian forces into the region – and say some 20,000 Russian troops are just across the border.
“The situation is getting worse with every hour,” Donetsk city council spokesman Maxim Rovinsky told The Associated Press.
At least one person was killed and 18 wounded in shelling Saturday that hit about 30 apartment blocks in Donetsk, he said, adding that about 2,000 residential buildings had no electricity.
Explosions were also heard Saturday on the northern outskirts near Donetsk’s airport.
Ukrainian officials have consistently denied that their forces are shelling civilians, but the rebels dismiss that and claim the government is aiming to blame the insurgents for the increasing death and destruction in the region. Ukraine says the rebels have deliberately put rocket launchers in populated areas.
Some say both sides are to blame.
“We’re afraid of the Ukrainian army, which is firing on the city, and of the rebels of the Donetsk People’s Republic, who are robbing and killing civilians,” said Dmitry Andronov, a 47-year-old resident.
Zakharchenko’s statement that the city was surrounded came hours after the rebels’ top commander said Ukrainian forces had seized a key town, Krasnyi Luch, effectively cutting off Donetsk and nearby territory from the rest of the rebel-held east.
“The Donetsk-Horlivka group of the fighters of Novorossiya is completely surrounded,” Igor Girkin said on a rebel social media page.
Novosrossiya, or “New Russia,” is a term widely used by the rebels for the eastern area that seeks independence from the government in Kiev. Horlivka, where rebels and Ukrainian forces are also fighting, is 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Donetsk.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian military operation, Andriy Lysenko, told reporters Saturday that he could not confirm that Krasnyi Luch was under government control.
Concerns were also rising about a possible humanitarian catastrophe in the rebel’s second-largest city of Luhansk, where fighting has been heavier and more prolonged. A map released by the Ukrainian military shows Ukrainian forces near the outskirts of Luhansk on three sides, with an opening to other rebel-held territory only to the south.
Russian news agencies quoted Luhansk authorities as saying Saturday that the city has been without water and electricity for a week and most of its stores were closed.
The deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, Valeriy Chalyi, claimed Saturday that Russian forces wanted to enter Ukraine under the guise of a humanitarian mission but Ukraine had blocked the move.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the claim, saying “there was no attempt by Russian soldiers at penetration,” according to Russian news agencies.
But he reiterated Russia’s call for humanitarian action, saying “this catastrophe now is the No. 1 theme for discussion.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was working to alleviate the crisis in eastern Ukraine but warned that any Red Cross aid convoy “will be taken in strict adherence to our fundamental working principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence.”
In the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, city workers and volunteers on Saturday removed the last of the barricades that had blocked the city’s main street since anti-government protests began in November.
Protesters had erected the barricades to protect a sprawling tent camp on the city’s main square. Although the camp’s size dwindled sharply after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in February and a new government came to power, a determined core of demonstrators remained.
Yanukovych’s ouster precipitated the crisis in Ukraine’s east, which was his support base. Fighting began in April, after Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Ukraine’s Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula.
Peter Leonard in Kiev, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.