East Ukrainians in rare protest against Russian-backed rebels

ukraine mapSeveral hundred Ukrainians in the country’s war-torn east demanded Monday that pro-Russian insurgents remove scores of rocket launchers from crowded city neighbourhoods and stop provoking government fire on their homes.

The small but unusual demonstration outside the offices of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic suggested that an undercurrent of resentment with the new authorities was appearing in eastern Ukraine’s main rebel-held town.

Districts around Donetsk and Lugansk — capital of a neighbouring separatist region — have witnessed the return of intense fighting that has claimed more than 50 lives this month.

That upsurge followed more than three months of relative calm that came in the wake of a truce agreement brokered in the Belarussian capital Minsk with the direct involvement of the leaders of Germany and France.

Donetsk residents from a neighbourhood near the airport that insurgents managed to seize after months of some of the war’s heaviest clashes in January, accused the insurgents of using them as human shields.

“You are hiding behind our backs,” some residents chanted. Others simply shouted “Shame!”

“It has been impossible to live in these conditions for the past year,” said a young woman who wanted to be identified only as Lena for fear of retribution from the insurgents.

“We have hardly been able to leave our basements for the past two weeks,” said fellow demonstrator Irina. “They have left us to our fates.”

The event received no mention on the Donetsk insurgents’ official news site. They have previously described videos showing rockets being launched from children’s playgrounds and apartment courtyards as fake.

Donetsk separatist chief Alexander Zakharchenko blamed the latest violence Monday on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the Western-backed government against whom the separatists rebelled in March 2014.

“Ukraine does not need Minsk. It is doing everything to undermine that agreement,” Zakharchenko told the militants’ official news site.

“We are standing on the verge of all-out war,” his deputy Denis Pushilin warned.

– Back to Minsk –

The protest rally and tough talk in Donetsk came on the eve of a new round of top-level negotiations in Minsk that have thus far led nowhere and seen its chief European mediator walk away from the job.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Heidi Tagliavini is still expected, however, to attend Tuesday’s Minsk meeting.

But she filed her assignment resignation papers after a disastrous few hours of negotiations last month ended when the Russian envoy abruptly walked out of the room.

The Minsk talks are designed to help find a lasting solution that would give Lugansk and Donetsk broader autonomy within a unified Ukraine.

But the details of how this process should work were not spelt out in the February deal.

Ukraine insists that no local elections can be held in the rebel-run parts of its industrial heartland until Kiev secures full control of the Russian border and all of its eastern neighbour’s soldiers leave the war zone.

The rebels want to hold the local elections much sooner and under its own terms.

Moscow denies supporting the rebel campaign in any way.

Yet it has agreed to terms that by year-end would give Kiev back control back of a 400-kilometre (500-mile) stretch of the Russia-Ukrainian frontier that the insurgents allegedly use to smuggle in weapons and tanks.

The 14-month campaign has now claimed nearly 6,500 lives.

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