Early on Tuesday morning, gigantic explosions awoke residents in Snizhne, a small city in eastern Ukraine, as bombs falling from the sky ripped through brickwork and gouged large craters. Multiple buildings in the town’s center were hit, including the tax administration building and several apartment blocks, when a fighter jet fired at least six heavyweight rockets in the area, killing at least 11. Both sides in the conflict appeared to blame each other for the attack.
“I went to my mother and we just ran outside the house and up the road as fast as we could. We didn’t know where to go, just that we had to get away,” said 29-year-old shop worker, Marina, who lives two doors down from the one of the town’s most heavily damaged buildings.
Another local resident, Maxim, clutched his traumatized Siamese cat as he told VICE News how he hid under the bed after the windows of his apartment were blown out by the blast. "It was like World War III had started," he said.
Using trucks and cranes to clear the rubble, rebels, local volunteers, and emergency services worked side-by-side to sift through the mess for trapped people and prevent the further collapse of the building. By evening, the death toll had reportedly risen from nine to 11, with a further eight people seriously wounded according to information from the Donetsk Regional State Administration. The ad-hoc rescue team on the ground, including doctors and firemen, confirmed the figure.
Ukrainian forces have hit multiple targets with airstrikes in the east of the country over the last four days after the country’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, announced that the anti-terror operation aimed at ousting the pro-Russia rebels from the east had entered a new stage that would “liberate” Luhansk and Donetsk — the region’s two largest cities.
But officials in Kiev have denied that its forces were behind this morning’s deadly air attack on the town, which is just 12 miles from Russia’s border, and implied the attack could have originated with Russia. “Today at 7am an unknown plane carried out a bombing attack on Snizhne,” said Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Council. “The flight can be described only as a cynical provocation."
After some signs of lessening earlier this month, tension between the countries has risen again in the last week, with NATO reporting a significant build-up of Russian forces on the border — at least 12,000 troops are now believed to be stationed there.
The European Union’s top officials are due to meet in Brussels on Wednesday to consider a new round of sanctions against Russia, which Kiev and its allies accuse of supporting the rebels operating in east Ukraine.
“The heads of state and government will again assess the situation on the ground and, should it be required, adopt necessary decisions," the bloc's enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
On Monday, government officials in Ukraine’s capital said that an An-26 military supply plane downed just a few miles shy of the country’s eastern border was hit by a missile “probably fired” from inside Russia.
The Kremlin has not yet responded to either of Kiev’s allegations, but rebels have claimed that they, not Moscow, were responsible for bringing the plane down.
Speaking to VICE News, Sergey, a rebel commander in Snizhne, said that the Ukrainian suggestion that the explosives had been dropped by Russian plane was "lies."
“They are fighting a propaganda war,” he added. "There is no reason for Russia to bomb us."
The position of a large rebel base, about 650 feet from where the bomb dropped, leaves open the possibility that Ukrainian forces may have misfired and dropped short of their intended target.
But despite the rising number of civilian casualties — more than 20 reported in the last week — fighting in the country’s East shows no signs of slowing, with both sides continuing to use large volumes of inaccurate heavy artillery, including mortars and grad.
As a mop-up operation continued into the afternoon in Snizhne, the dull boom of artillery was audible less than six miles to the east of the blasted town. The area around the Russian border has become an epicenter of fighting over the last month as pro-Russia rebels seek to punch holes in Ukrainian forces' lines to secure a safe passage for supplies of arms and men to cross into the country.
Standing outside her apartment block on the corner of Lenin Street, retired nurse Svetlana Kontratuk sobbed as she pointed to her third-story apartment’s exposed kitchen and bathroom, now without walls after taking the brunt of the hit. “I am afraid of everything. I don’t know what can protect me,” she told VICE News. “I never supported any of this.”
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