Rockets kill 30 in Ukrainian city as rebels launch offensive

KIEV : Indiscriminate rocket fire slammed into a market, schools, homes and shops in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, killing at least 30 people, authorities have said.
Ukrainian officials rushed to defend the strategically important port city as the separatists’ top leader declared that an offensive against it had begun. He later toned down his threats as the scale of civilian casualties became evident.
President Petro Poroshenko called an emergency meeting of his military officials and cut short a trip to Saudi Arabia to coordinate the government’s response. Military positions in the city were strengthened and forces were being built up, Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak said yesterday.
Poroshenko called the attacks on Mariupol a terrorist act.
“The time has come to name their sponsors. The help given to militants, weapons deliveries, equipment and the training of manpower is this not aiding terrorism?” he said in a recorded statement.
Russia insists it does not support the rebels, but Western military officials say the sheer number of heavy weapons under rebel control belies that claim.
The rocket attacks came a day after the rebels rejected a peace deal and announced they were going on a multi-prong offensive against the government in Kiev to vastly increase their territory. The rebel stance has upended European attempts to mediate an end to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, which the UN says has killed nearly 5,100 people since April.
Mariupol, which lies on the Azov Sea, is the major city between mainland Russia and the Russia-annexed Crimean Peninsula. Heavy fighting in the region in the fall raised fears that Russian-backed separatist forces would try to take over the city to establish a land link between Russia and Crimea.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said three separate strikes from Grad multiple-rocket launchers hit Mariupol and surrounding areas yesterday.
“The area that came under attack was massive,” Mariupol mayor Yuriy Khotlubei said. “The shelling was carried out by militants. This is very clearly Russian aggression that has caused terrible losses for the residents of the eastern part of our city.” (AGENCIES)

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