This morning at around 5AM a half-hour volley of heavy artillery rained down on pro-Russia rebel stronghold Gorlovka, a city of nearly 300,000 people. Video footage of the assault shows a series of large explosions followed by massive spires of black smoke rising from the city’s suburbs.
More than 230,000 people have fled the region as fierce fighting has flared following the announcement by Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, that the Kiev-backed anti-terrorism operation (ATO) aimed at dislodging the pro-Russia rebels in the country’s east had entered a “new phase” aimed at “liberating” the region’s two largest cities.
But many others have remained. “This is my home, this is where my children were born, this is where everything I have worked for is,” tearful Marina, a mother of two, told VICE News by telephone. She and her family said they had no time to reach the nearby bomb shelter this morning when the artillery strike began in Gorlovka and instead just lay under their beds. “We were sleeping, the windows smashed from the weight of the explosion. We were on the floor. It felt like the end of the world,” she sobbed.
According to locals between 12 and 30 civilians were killed in the dawn attack, which reportedly hit several residential blocks, blew out the windows of the local hospital, and set a shopping mall on fire.
Restrictions placed on the movement of journalists in “conflict zones” by the rebels have prevented independent verification of the reports as pro-Russia fighters will not allow reporters to cross checkpoints into areas close to clashes.
However, according to local and official reports the ATO has also made significant advances across the region in recent days.
“Over the course of last week we have freed from terrorists 10 localities. We have approached Horlivka. Donetsk will be next,” stated Andriy Lysenko, spokesperson for the Ukrainian Security and Defense Council.
Today the streets of Donetsk, a city of nearly 1 million people, were eerily quiet as locals braced for fighting. "We know they are coming, we hear the explosions getting closer every night. My wife and kids are sitting home. I've just come out to buy bread,' said 31-year-old Ivan, as he walked along a nearly deserted boulevard in the city center.
Meanwhile the government in Kiev also announced a controversial push toward the crash site of the MH17 flight. All 298 passengers onboard the plane were killed when it was shot down ten days ago.
"Our troops are aiming to get there and liberate this territory so that we can guarantee that international experts can carry out a 100 percent investigation of the site and get all proof needed to deduce the real reason for this tragedy," said Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's Security Council.
Previously the government said it had reached a ceasefire agreement with the rebels covering a 40-kilometer radius surrounding the site. The deal was supposed to allow international experts who had arrived in Kiev and Donetsk to access the site, both to investigate the causes of the crash and to search for human remains that are believed still to be in situ.
Today, following reports of Ukrainian tanks moving in the nearby area, all planned visits were called off.
In Donetsk, Alexander Hug, deputy head for the Organization for Security and Cooperation said that the “situation on the ground appears to be unsafe." The group would reconsider their position on a trip in the morning, he added, flanked by Dutch and Australian experts.
The OSCE delegation, which has made several trips to the crash site but does not carry out forensic or aviation investigations, was due to be accompanied on Sunday by a team of 30 unarmed police officers, as well as a small crew of international specialists.
Experts have warned that fighting in the area will likely further hinder a proper investigation into what caused the war-zone crash. Kiev and its western allies have accused the rebels of shooting down the plane and then attempting to prevent officials’ access to the site in a bid to hide the trail of evidence pointing to them.
Fighting has raged in the areas near the crash site for weeks as Ukrainian forces attempt to sever crucial supply routes between the two rebel strongholds in Luhansk and Donetsk, and seal its porous border where much-needed fighters and arms have flowed freely into the rebels from Russia.
Both Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of shelling across their shared border.
Today air sirens sounded in Torez — a city near the Donetsk-Luhansk borderline — as panicked residents headed to basements and other makeshift bomb shelters amid fears of a Ukrainian air strike. Nervous rebel gunmen sped up and down the streets in vans and off road vehicles, locals reported.
The war, fought by two combat-inexperienced sides, is taking an increasing heavy toll on the civilian population. Both sides persist in firing artillery at each other rather than engaging in direct combat, but as fighting edges toward towns and cities the civilian death count is rising rapidly.
Infrastructural damage is also huge. Mines, roads, electricity pylons, water pipes, factories, and train lines across the region have all been hit in the crossfire.
Kiev continues to deny that it is firing heavy artillery into populated areas, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. “We will not bombard Donetsk. We will use only ground forces there, which will — street after street, quarter after quarter — free the city,” Lysenko said.
An on-the-ground investigation by Human Rights Watch published two days ago found that the angle and shape of the craters, and the direction of damage caused by Grad attacks in the Donetsk suburbs which killed at least 16 citizens between July 12 and 21 “strongly suggests” that they were fired from Ukrainian positions.
Sloviansk, a city to the north of Donetsk and the previous heartland of the rebels, was retaken earlier this month after a three-month campaign of shelling which decimated suburbs and also hit the city center.
On the other side, however, multiple local testimonies suggest that rebels are using civilian areas as positions for firing Grads, mortars and other heavy weaponry.
Human Rights Watch has warned that both the rebels and Ukrainian government and military officials could face war crime charges if their use of artillery in populated areas doesn’t cease.
However, tonight the fighting showed no signs of abating as Grad fire echoed through the night air in Donetsk's suburbs.
Battles also continue around the city’s airport and train station. Last night, tracer bullets streaked through the air as Ukrainian drones buzz overhead and rebels fired anti-aircraft missiles in return. Scared locals with piles of suitcases sheltered in the underground passages beneath the station platforms as they waited for a train out of the besieged city that was delayed by more than seven hours, reportedly due to an exploded bridge.
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem
All Photos by Harriet Salem