Sleepless night under falling shells at Ukraine front
The ripped power lines hanging from wooden poles betray a sleepless night without electricity for the residents of this frontline Ukrainian town, where renewed shelling attacks have put it under a global spotlight.
More heavy thuds rang out on Friday around the snow-covered town of Stanytsia Luganska, as world powers braced for signs of an escalation in fighting that Russia might use as a pretext to launch an invasion of Ukraine.
Many of the rural town's original 12,000 residents fled at the onset of fighting eight years ago in regions hugging Ukraine's southeastern border with Russia. The conflict has killed thousands.
But those who remained in the government-held town spent the night worrying about a resurgence of clashes similar to those that claimed dozens of lives daily in the early months of Ukraine's simmering war.
"Right now, the locals' biggest need is housing," Vostok SOS relief agency head Kostyantyn Reutskiy told AFP as he inspected the latest damage.
"Three houses and a store were damaged in the village itself," he said.
His agency counted 20 houses damaged by the latest exchanges of fire between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists along this stretch of the front.
"One family spent the night in one of these houses without a roof over their heads," said Reutskiy. "They have nowhere to go."
- 'Children are frightened' -
Stanytsia Luganska gained unwanted international attention after a shell blew a hole in the wall of one of its kindergartens during a sudden surge in attacks on Thursday afternoon.
All 20 children and 18 staff escaped relatively unharmed after rushing to the opposite side of the building and cowering against the walls.
But the shell smashed through the wall of a gym room the children were supposed to play in 15 minutes later.
Kindergarten director Natalia Butenko said her family had to run into their own bomb shelter twice last night because of shelling attacks nearby.
"Of course, all of this is wrong," the 38-year-old told AFP. "The children are frightened. The staff are also worried. It's not even safe at home. You end up having to hide."
Butenko braved the thuds echoing on the horizon and returned to the kindergarten to clean up some of the debris on Friday.
The gym room's floor was scattered with a thick pile of bricks. Three soccer balls lay atop debris dust in a corner decorated with posters and a few remaining Christmas ornaments.
"If the shooting intensifies, we will run into the bomb shelter in the neighbouring house," Butenko said.
- Banned weapons -
Ukrainian soldiers stationed some 100 kilometres (60 miles) to the southwest in the frontline town of Novoluganske reported heavier fighting in recent days.
"It has been quiet for a few hours," an infantry soldier, who agreed to be named only as Andriy for military security reasons, told AFP.
"But in the morning, at about 7:00 am, first on the right, then on the left, they were firing at us with banned weapons."
Monitors from the OSCE European security body are also reporting more attacks by armaments that were supposed to have been removed under the terms of two largely-ignored peace plans signed in 2014 and 2015.
"Before, they would fire with small-calibre weapons, regular grenades, grenade launchers. But now, they are using more serious weapons: artillery and guided anti-tank missiles," the soldier said.
Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told parliament on Friday that his forces were being extremely careful not to do anything that might provoke Russia into launching its feared offensive.
Andriy said his infantry unit was following that guidance.
"We are not responding to the fire," he said. "If they launch a direct offensive, we will have to hold them back. But otherwise, we are not responding to provocations," he said.