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International Red Cross Worker Killed in Ukraine as Battle for Donetsk Airport Heats Up

Shelling is spilling over into civilian areas as separatists try to push Kiev's forces from their last foothold in the city.
Image via Reuters

A worker for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was killed on Thursday night by shelling in central Donetsk, the rebel stronghold currently the scene of fierce fighting over the city's airport .

Laurent DuPasquier, a 38-year-old Swiss national, had worked for the ICRC in crisis-hit areas across the world including Pakistan, Haiti, Egypt and Papua New Guinea, before taking up his post in Ukraine six weeks ago.


Teams of international and local ICRC workers have provided humanitarian assistance in Donetsk and Luhansk, the two regions worst affected by the conflict, since fighting broke out in mid-April.

The ICRC's other 20 staff members in Donetsk were "in safety" following the shelling which hit close to its offices in the city, according to a statement from the organization.

Thursday was not the first time Red Cross workers have come under fire in east Ukraine. In July a panicked ICRC team were trapped for two days in the basement of their office in Luhansk under heavy fire from mortars and grad rockets.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have criticized the use of heavy weaponry in populated areas by both of the warring sides.

In the statement, released in the hours after DuPasquier's death, the ICRC's director of operations, Dominik Stillhart, said that the organization was "deeply shocked by this tragic loss".

"Indiscriminate shelling of residential areas is unacceptable and violates international law," added Stillhart, noting other civilian casualties in Donetsk on the same day.

Since fighting broke out in mid-April at least 3,000 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine and up to one million people displaced.

A ceasefire was agreed as part of a peace deal signed in Minsk on September 5, but violations have been reportedly almost daily since it was signed. Until recently much of the fighting was contained to the area surrounding Donetsk airport, where pro-Russian separatists are trying to drive Ukrainian forces from their last foothold in the city, and other flash points near the frontlines such as Debaltseve and Popasna. But overspills in the clashes and civilian casualties have mounted notably in recent days. On Wednesday at least nine deaths were reported after shells hit a bus and school playground in the Kyivskiy district in north Donetsk, close to the airport.


'What Ceasefire?' 10 Dead in Ukraine as Shells Hit Donetsk Bus and School. Read more here

The fresh strikes on central areas of Donetsk are another nail in the coffin for the ceasefire deal, which many in Ukraine now regard as existing only on paper.

With Ukraine's parliamentary elections now just over three weeks away, the conflict in the country's east is dominating campaigning, with parties divided into pro-peace and pro-war camps.

The most prominent of the peace parties is President Petro Poroshenko's newly formed self-named block.

Shortly after taking the reigns of power in May, the newly elected president vowed that he would "continue the operation to liberate Donetsk and Luhansk regions from terrorists," but later did an about turn, claiming that there could be "no military solution" to the crisis.

Ukraine has come under growing pressure from the West to de-escalate the conflict. The US and European governments have favored a strategy of imposing economic sanctions on Russia over providing military support to Kiev.

Now, with the peace deal on its knees, the president's critics say he has backed himself into an impossible corner, where he must either admit his strategy has failed or pursue it to the bitter end.

"This settlement has adversely affected morale of many people who see it as a compromise coerced by Russia," Oleh Shamshur, a political analyst and former ambassador for Ukraine to the US, told VICE news.


While Porshenko's block still leads the polls by a significant margin, its support — around 26 percent in recent polls — is notably lower than the 56 percent mandate the so-called "Chocolate King" received in the presidential election just a few months ago.

Last month the leader of the far-right Ukrainian Radical Party, Oleh Lyashko, accused the president of betraying Ukraine by backing the peace plan hammered out in Minsk. ""The delay in the EU trade deal and the ceasefire were made under the pressure of Russia," said Lyashko at a conference of political analysts and journalists, adding: "We should not thank these terrorists (for signing the deal), we should use a firing squad." According to polls Lyashko's party is expected to take around around six percent of the vote.

Opposition forces, including the Batkivshchyna party led by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the newly formed People's Front, headed by the incumbent Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, have also capitalized on public discontent with the president's handling of a conflict that has already killed more than 900 Ukrainian servicemen.

On Thursday, speaking at a press conference for the People's Front — a party which includes several battalion commanders — Dmitry Tymchuk, a former lieutenant colonel in the Ukrainian army and a founding member, called for the "militarization of Ukraine" including a "powerful reserve force of around 500,000."

But while politicians in the capital debate the future direction of the war, many of those most affected by the conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk are unlikely to get the chance to vote. Earlier this year voters in the rebel-held areas in the east of the country were unable to participate in the presidential elections as the violence prevented the opening of polling stations and delivery of ballot papers.

The rebel administration in Donetsk has said that it will hold its own elections on November 2.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @harrietsalem

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