Separatist rebels attacked a caravan of cars carrying refugees trying to flee war-ravaged eastern Ukraine on Monday, killing “dozens” of people in a devastating barrage of artillery fire, Ukrainian military officials said, though rebel leaders denied there had been any attack at all.
Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military, told a briefing in Kiev, the capital, that “terrorists had perpetrated a bloody crime” by attacking the refugee convoy with Grad rocket systems and other heavy weapons supplied by Russia.
Although Lysenko did not give a precise tally of the fatalities, if confirmed, the episode would easily rank among the most deadly for civilians since separatists began seizing cities and towns in the region more than four months ago.
“Many people died, including women and children,” he said, adding that the assault took place on the main highway leading south out of the regional capital of Luhansk, between the villages of Khryashchuvatye and Novosvitlivka.
At least 2,086 people have been killed and more than 5,000 wounded in Ukraine, a spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office said last week, with more than half the deaths occurring in just the last two weeks.
The U.N. statistics, based partly on reports from local health officials, include military and civilian casualties. The numbers are extremely difficult to calculate, in part because many dead and wounded rebels are taken to Russia. Those being treated are a common sight at hospitals along the Ukrainian border.
By far the single largest loss of life occurred when a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down last month, killing all 298 people on board.
The highway where Ukraine says the attack on the refugees took place connects Luhansk, which has been the focus of a government offensive to regain territory controlled by separatists, with the Russian border. The road has seen heavy fighting in recent days as Ukrainian forces have tried to seal off supply routes into the city from Russia.
Here in Donetsk, the last major rebel stronghold, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, denied that any such attack had occurred.
“Not one column of refugees was fired on in Luhansk at that time,” Zakharchenko told journalists.
“The Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic did not shoot at refugees with Grad supposedly provided by Russia,” he said.
All Grad rocket launchers in Luhansk, he said, were captured as “trophy” weapons from the Ukrainian army, not provided by Russia. About the convoy, he added, “we would not form a column ourselves and then shoot at it ourselves.”
Zakharchenko then countered with his own allegation of war crimes.
The Ukrainian army, he said, had used a chemical weapon in eastern Ukraine, though its exact nature was unclear. Pro-Russian soldiers in a village where cluster munitions had fallen developed rashes and became ill, he said.
Zakharchenko’s assertion could not be immediately verified.
There was no independent confirmation either of the Ukrainian government’s report on the convoy attack, which followed repeated rebel accusations that Ukraine is responsible for an increasing number of civilian casualties in the combat zone.
Russia has accused Ukraine of stepping up its operations in the area to wreck what Moscow describes as a humanitarian mission involving a convoy of about 270 trucks carrying relief supplies. The trucks have been stalled for days on the Russian side of the border and had planned to take the same highway into Luhansk.
The report of civilian deaths provided a grim backdrop as diplomatic efforts to resolve the Ukraine crisis failed to progress on Monday during talks in Berlin among the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany.
Leaving the session, the diplomats said they were no closer to a cease-fire or a long-term political settlement.
The Ukrainian government’s advance on the rebels is raising pressure on President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has pledged to support Russians everywhere but has not acknowledged any direct military assistance to the separatists. On Sunday, Putin’s spokesman again denied sending any military aid to the rebels.
With the rebels’ defeat seeming increasingly inevitable, Russia has repeated its demand that President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine order a cease-fire. Speaking to reporters in Berlin on Monday, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, called on the United States and its allies to pressure Kiev to pull back its forces.
“There are things for our Western partners, who have a direct influence on Kiev, to work on in this field,” Lavrov said.
He said that there was an agreement to allow the truck convoy to cross into Ukraine, though it remained stalled. Along the border, nothing had changed by Monday afternoon.
“There is no movement,” said Sergey Kravchenko, a representative for the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry currently in the Rostov region. “Nothing is happening.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross had said Saturday that an initial agreement had been reached for the trucks to be inspected by Ukrainian border guards, but negotiations on technicalities were continuing.
The truck convoy left Moscow last Tuesday and arrived in the city of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky on Thursday, where it parked at a field camp close to several military bases.
Ukraine has lost authority over large swaths of its eastern border to rebels, and the border crossing is controlled by the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic.
About 60 Ukrainian border guards arrived at the border post Friday evening and have been negotiating with the Russian government and representatives of the Red Cross for several days.
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