MARIUPOL, Ukraine (AFP) – 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”.
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.