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Surrounded Luhansk Is Under Near-Constant Barrage as Russia’s Aid Convoy Edges Closer to Ukraine

The rebel-held city has been without running water, electricity, and telecommunications for nearly three weeks.

by Harriet Salem
Aug 21 2014, 11:00pm

Photo by Harriet Salem

As the sun set on Wednesday, the whistle of a dozen mortar shells hurtling above high rise apartment blocks, followed by enormous booms and plumes of black rising smoke signaled the end of another day in the eastern Ukraine city of Luhansk.

The dusk assault was the second hit on the besieged city's central market in a matter of days. On Tuesday afternoon, heavy explosives had already rained down on the once bustling shopping area, now reducing more than half the stalls to a burnt out mess of hanging wires and rubble.

The rebel-held city, almost totally surrounded by Ukrainian forces, is now under a near-constant barrage of artillery, and has been without running water, electricity, and telecommunications for nearly three weeks after vital infrastructure was hit in the crossfire of the two warring sides.

The blockade around the city has also led to severe shortages of many basic foodstuffs, including flour, oil, and sugar, and prices have risen up to five-fold.

The Only American Fighting for Ukraine Dies in Battle. Read more here.

A souvenir stall reduced to rubble after the once bustling central market in Luhansk was hit by multiple mortars on Tuesday afternoon.

According to the United Nations, fighting in Ukraine's east has claimed at least 2,000 lives and displaced more than 340,000 people since it broke out in mid-April. The international body has called these estimates "very conservative."

Those residents that remain in Luhansk have become grimly accustomed to the heavy artillery war being fought in their backyards. Most try to complete all outside chores before 2PM when the relative morning lull in firing comes to a punctual end.

"You can set your watch by it, give or take 15 minutes," Andriy, a local driver, told VICE News while tapping his wrist. "People go out in the morning and do what they have to do, then the streets empty out by the afternoon, The marshutkas [public buses] stop running at 1PM now because of the shelling, I guess we have adapted to this situation."

Meanwhile, this afternoon a Russian humanitarian aid convoy headed for the war-torn oblast seemed to be finally edging closer to its destination, as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released a statement that the inspection of some of the trucks' cargo had begun on the Ukrainian side of the border.

Rayan Farukshin, spokesman for Southern Customs district of Russia, also confirmed 16 aid trucks had entered the Russian customs zone near Ukraine's eastern border. According to Farukshin, the Russian side had cleared four of the trucks and another four were being processed.

Diplomatic wrangling over the aid convoy, and the intentions of Moscow in sending it, have delayed the 260-plus trucks in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky — less than two miles shy of Ukraine's eastern border — for a week. The government in Kiev has refused permission for it to cross without the cargo first being inspected by Ukrainian officials and transferred into ICRC vehicles.

Moscow says the aid convoy, which appears to include many former military vehicles hastily repainted white, is carrying food, baby products, and other vital supplies for the residents of the besieged city. But the Ukrainian government has accused the Kremlin-backed convoy of being a modern day Trojan horse that will serve as a pretext for a formal Russian invasion.

Fuelling Kiev's concerns is the ever-growing build up of Russian troops and military equipment near Ukraine's eastern border. More than 12,000 Russian soldiers are currently massed in the area, and military vehicles labeled with "peacekeeping" insignia have been spotted moving — prompting fears of a repeat similar to the 2008 Georgia-Russia crisis.

For months, Kiev and its western allies have accused Russia of providing covert support to the rebels by allowing fighters and weaponry to flood across Ukraine's border — a claim Moscow has denied, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — including NATO satellite images of military vehicle movements and journalists' eyewitness accounts.

Yet, despite the alleged under-the-counter support for the rebel uprising, if overt Russian backup is not forthcoming imminently, Donetsk looks set to follow in the footsteps of neighboring oblast Luhansk as Ukrainian forces tighten the net around the increasingly beleaguered rebel stronghold.

Water to large parts of Donetsk, the rebels' administrative capital and a city with a pre-war population of nearly one million, has now been cut off for three days after two water filtration plants were hit and shelling is encroaching on the central areas. On Wednesday, in the heaviest strike yet on the city, multiple shells hit the area around Shakhtarsk football stadium — used to host matches during the Euro 2012 soccer tournament — smashing through residential apartment blocks, and local shops.

Fighting has also flared in nearby Makiyivka and Ilovaisk, killing 34 civilians in a period of 24 hours, according to the Donetsk mayor's office. At least nine Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the clashes, Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's National Security Council, told journalists in Kiev.

With Ukraine's Independence Day due to be celebrated on Sunday, many locals say they fear the battles will intensify as the Kiev-backed anti-terror operation forces push for a result in time for the end of the weekend.

Today the crater-ridden main road between Luhansk and Donetsk was near-deserted, save for a couple of convoys of rebel tanks and armored personnel carriers flying the Russian flag, and a handful of civilian cars speeding through, flying white flags and signs propped in the window reading "children." Artillery fire and plumes of black smoke were visible in several fields along the route, and huddles of locals stood at bus stops carrying bags and suitcases.

Watch all of VICE News' dispatches, Russian Roulette here.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem

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