World leaders ramped up pressure on Moscow Sunday to stop pro-Kremlin rebels from embarking on a major new offensive in eastern Ukraine after rocket fire killed at least 30 people in a strategic government-held port.
The mayor of Mariupol’s office said 97 people were also wounded by dozens of long-distance rockets that smashed into a packed residential district early in the morning and then again shortly after noon.
“Obviously, everyone in the city is very scared,” Eduard, a native of the city of half a million, told AFP.
A fellow resident named Pavlo described dazed survivors helping wounded victims to climb out of the concrete rubble of Soviet-era apartment blocks and navigate streets strewn with shattered glass.
No group has claimed responsibility for the bloodshed, but the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said the rocket fire came from two locations “controlled by the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic'”.
The attack on the last Kiev-controlled major city in Ukraine’s restive east, which links separatist territory with Russian-occupied Crimea, drew ire from Western leaders, who blame Moscow for stoking the conflict that has claimed more than 5,000 lives.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, cutting short a trip to Saudi Arabia to chair an emergency National Security and Defence Council meeting in Kiev, vowed to “defend our motherland the way real patriots do — until a full victory”.
US Vice President Joe Biden, after a phone call with Poroshenko, warned that costs would “continue to rise” for Russia, which the White House accuses of sending troops and weapons to help the separatists — a change Moscow has repeatedly denied.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also denounced the rebel groups for launching a fresh offensive, in violation of a September peace treaty, “and particularly their provocative statements about claiming further territory”.
– ‘Tribute for our dead’ –
Leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic Alexander Zakharchenko on Saturday claimed that “today, we launched an offensive against Mariupol”, in quotes carried by Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency.
Although he later said his forces were still “saving their strength” and had “conducted no active operations in Mariupol”, he described the potential capture of the industrial port as “the best tribute possible for all our dead”.
The attack drew an angry response from Ukraine’s pro-Western government, with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk calling on the UN Security Council to censure Russia for allegedly spearheading the militants’ advance.
But an attempt to agree a text, spearheaded by Britain, failed. Western diplomats blamed Russia, which has veto power as a permanent member of the council, for stonewalling, but Russia said the UK’s insistence on condemning the rebel forces was the issue.
Western leaders watched with worry as violence once again threatened to spiral out of control in what has already been one of Europe’s deadliest and most diplomatically-explosive crises since the Cold War.
Both the EU and the US have imposed sanctions on Russia for fuelling the bloody nine-month conflict with troops and weapons — an accusation Moscow has repeatedly denied.
US Secretary of State John Kerry called on Russia to “end its support for separatists immediately, close the international border with Ukraine and withdraw all weapons, fighters and financial backing”.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also urged Russia to “stop destabilising Ukraine”, while German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the situation was “very dangerous”.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned the latest escalation “would inevitably lead to a further grave deterioration of relations between the EU and Russia”.
Latvia, which holds the EU’s six-month rotating presidency until July, called for an emergency meeting of the bloc’s foreign affairs council next week.
– Link to Crimea –
Mariupol, a city on the southeastern Sea of Azov, provides a land bridge between guerrilla-held regions to the east and the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea that Russia annexed from Ukraine last March.
It has been a key strategic flashpoint in the Ukrainian conflict, which began when deadly protests in Kiev last winter toppled Ukraine’s Russian-backed president and saw the country anchor its future to the West.
A rebel assault on the port in August saw Kiev repel the attack at such heavy cost that it prompted President Poroshenko to agree to a September 5 ceasefire. That truce was, however, followed by further clashes that killed at least 1,500 people.
The separatist leader of Donetsk on Friday said he was launching an offensive to seize eastern lands still controlled by Kiev, a day after his men flushed out Ukrainian troops from a long-disputed airport in Donetsk.
Western diplomats linked the rebel’s advance to a new infusion of Russian troops — firmly denied by the Kremlin — designed to expand separatist holdings before the signing of a final truce and land demarcation agreement.
Ukraine claimed on Monday that Moscow had poured nearly 1,000 more Russian soldiers and dozens of tanks into the southeast in order to secure control over factories and coal mines that could help the rebels build their own state.
Putin quickly rejected the charges and blamed Kiev for the latest surge in deaths.
“Artillery is being used, rocket launchers and aviation, and it is used indiscriminately and over densely populated areas,” Putin said on Friday.