Clashes in Donetsk as Ukraine makes gains against rebels

DONETSK, Ukraine - Mortar blasts rocked the outskirts of rebel stronghold Donetsk Tuesday as Ukrainian soldiers clashed again with pro-Russian insurgents a day after five civilians were reported killed by shelling in the area.

AFP reporters heard artillery fire coming from the Ukrainian side in the village of Oktyabrsky close to the airport, which has now come under full government control.

Around 30 rebels - some in balaclavas or black pirate-style bandanas - immediately raised their Kalashnikov rifles into firing position and asked reporters to leave.

Five blasts rang out, each closer than the last.

"They're firing on civilians! These are Ukrainian troops! They have become like wild animals," said one of the fighters, who gave his nickname as "Black".

"We are expecting a column of heavy armour from the enemy side," he said, adding: "Our efforts are being hampered by their snipers... A sniper could take me out right now." "There is no truce here!" he said, as the separatists followed Kiev in pledging a ceasefire in the area around the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 some 60 kilometres from Donetsk.

Frightened residents of the ramshackle hamlet of unpaved roads and tumbledown cottages could be seen taking shelter, looking apprehensively into the air.

Defending ourselves

On a road nearby, there was a bombed-out T-64 tank.

The charred, deformed bodies of three Ukrainian soldiers could be seen lying side by side next to the wreckage.

"We are defending ourselves. I don't want to kill my brothers but we are under attack," a 39-year-old rebel and Donetsk native who said he fired the fatal anti-tank rocket that hit the vehicle, told AFP at the scene.

The man, who declined to give his name, said he hit the tank during intensive fighting on Monday.

"We will bury the bodies or maybe exchange them for bodies of our own guys," he said, as flies swarmed around the corpses under a scorching sun.

Ukrainian forces have laid siege to the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk in southeast Ukraine, capturing surrounding villages and towns in recent days.

General Staff commander Viktor Muzhenko told President Petro Poroshenko that Severodonetsk, a town around 120 kilometres northeast of Donetsk, was the latest to fall, the presidential administration said.

The interior ministry said it found two dead bodies in one of its facilities in the city, as well as four "hostages" allegedly held in captivity by the rebels for about a month.

The National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine also on Tuesday said that 13 soldiers had been killed in the past 24-hour period.

Russian President Vladimir Putin - accused by Kiev and the West of arming the rebels - has promised to do everything to influence the separatists in eastern Ukraine and help ensure a full probe into the Malaysia Airlines crash.

But he said "this would be absolutely inadequate given fresh attacks by Ukrainian troops".

Ukrainian "authorities must be called upon to abide by elementary decency, to introduce a ceasefire", he said.

There was little sign of a let-up on the ground however.

At the site of the blown-out tank in Donetsk, a gaunt rebel with nervous eyes, said there were exchanges of fire ongoing further up the road, near the village of Pervomayskoye.

The man, who wielded a machine-gun painted green to disguise it and wore camouflage uniform, said: "I will fight until death".