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At least 8 killed as fighting in Ukraine intensifies again

Fighting between government troops and separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine escalates, killing at least eight people overnight, injuring many more and trapping 200 coal miners underground.

Heavy artillery, rockets hit residential areas in new clashes between government troops, Russia-backed rebels

A wounded Ukrainian soldier is treated in Avdiivka, Ukraine on Tuesday. Fighting between government troops and Russian-backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine has escalated, killing at least eight people and injuring dozens. (Inna Varenytsia/Associated Press)

Heavy artillery and rockets hit residential areas in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday amid a new outburst of fighting between government troops and Russia-backed separatist rebels, killing at least eight people and injuring dozens.

Salvos of heavy-calibre artillery were heard throughout the night and late morning in Avdiivka, a town on the northern outskirts of the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, where residents have been without electricity for days.

In Donetsk, at least one civilian was killed by shrapnel.

The UN Security Council called for "an immediate return to the ceasefire regime," a call echoed by the UN spokesman. Council members, including Ukraine, which is serving a two-year term, expressed "grave concern about the dangerous deterioration of the situation in the eastern Ukraine and its severe impact on the local civilian population."

A Ukrainian soldier shows pieces of shrapnel in a crater left by an explosion in Avdiivka on Tuesday. (Inna Varenytsia/Associated Press)

The council condemned the use of weapons prohibited by the Minsk agreements on ending the conflict and called for their implementation. Members also expressed "full support" for the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."

No water or power

Fighting around Avdiivka has cut water and power supplies for most of the town and it was left without heating in the dead of winter. Temperatures plunged to –18 C Tuesday morning.

The warring sides blamed each other for the spike in hostilities, the worst in months. The Ukrainian government was considering evacuating 12,000 residents from Avdiivka, said Pavlo Zhebrivsky, head of the administration in charge of the government-controlled parts of the Donetsk region, in a post on Facebook.

With no signs of an immediate evacuation in sight, some residents went to a local bus station, hoping to get away from the heavy shelling.

Volodymyr Bassak, 67, was waiting to catch a bus Tuesday morning to a city some 200 kilometers north because of the lack of heat in his home.

"The house was shaking — [shelling] was really intense at about four in the morning," Bassak said as he brushed tears from his eyes. "There were flames along the front line."

A member of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic forces walks near an armoured personnel carrier near the village of Petrivske on Oct. 3, 2016. Rebels in Donetsk said an electricity sub-station was damaged in shelling, cutting power a coal mine and trapped miners below. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

'Impossible to stop bleeding'

Valery Tretyakov said he was having tea at home in Donetsk when he heard a big explosion and the sound of shattered glass. He rushed into the bedroom and saw his wife bleeding from a shrapnel wound to her neck that proved fatal.

"It was impossible to stop bleeding," Tretyakov said. "One minute and that's all."

The rebels' Donetsk News Agency also reported that four fighters died and seven were injured overnight, along with three civilians.

Oleksandr Turchynov, chairman of the Ukrainian Security and Defence Council, said that shelling around Avdiivka killed at least three government troops and injured 24 more. Another seven soldiers were killed on Sunday and Monday, the government said.

The press office of the Ukrainian military operation in the east reported an unspecified number of civilian casualties. It said the rebels turned down the government's offer for a ceasefire to allow the dead and wounded to be moved.

Finger pointed at Putin

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, accused the Ukrainian government of provoking the hostilities to distract public attention from domestic issues.

Peskov told reporters in Moscow that the Kremlin has "reliable information" that Ukrainian volunteer battalions crossed the front line Monday night and tried to capture rebel-controlled territory.

Kyiv is worried that Donald Trump's administration could ease some sanctions on Russia the U.S. imposed for the annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and support for the insurgency in the east.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Tuesday that the escalation of hostilities proves the sanctions must be kept in place "to bring the aggressor to justice."

Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko paid his respects to commemorate the victims of the Berlin Christmas market attack alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but then cut his visit short due to the intensification of the fighting in eastern Ukraine. (Bernd Von Jutrczenka/AFP/Getty Images)

Peskov, in turn, said that Kyiv's "aggressive actions" threaten to derail a 2015 Ukraine peace deal brokered by France and Germany. The agreement, obliging the warring sides to hold fire and pull back heavy weaponry, has been regularly violated.

U.S. commitment to ceasefire

The U.S. State Department voiced concern about the spike in fighting and on Tuesday reaffirmed Washington's support for the full implementation of the peace deal.

"To avert a larger humanitarian crisis, we call for an immediate, sustained ceasefire and full and unfettered access for OSCE monitors," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement, referring to an observer mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

The European Union also has expressed its worry over the renewed fighting and called on both sides to pull back immediately to allow for the urgent repair of critical infrastructure.

An escalation in the east could be beneficial to both the separatists and the Ukrainian government, Kyiv-based independent political analyst Vadim Karasyov said.

"Kyiv is eager to win support of the new Trump administration, and for this they need to show that separatists and the Kremlin are derailing the peace accords," he said. "For the Kremlin, it's important to show that it holds war and peace in its hands; if the new U.S. administration wants peace in Ukraine, it needs to offer something in return."

Coal miners trapped

Rebels in Donetsk said an electricity sub-station was damaged in shelling, cutting power to the Zasyadko coal mine. The mine is notorious for poor safety standards; a methane blast there killed 33 people in 2015.

With elevators not working, the miners were trapped underground for several hours before local authorities found backup generators outside the mine. By late afternoon on Tuesday, all 207 men were able to get out.

A worker carries a metal rod at the coking plant in the government-controlled town of Avdiivka in August 2015. Tuesday's shelling was concentrated around the town. (Mstyslav Chernov/Associated Press)

The director of Avdiivka's giant coking plant said on Monday that preparations were being made to stop production, something rarely done throughout the conflict that has claimed more than 9,700 lives since it began in 2014.

The coking plant, which switched to a natural gas supply after power was cut off on Tuesday, was providing some heating to homes in the town even though its gas reserves were are running low, director Musa Magomedov told The Associated Press.

The local hospital was flooded with injured soldiers during the night who were operated on and shipped to a town further away from the front line, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene. Several private houses were damaged in the shelling.

The local water supply company said Monday the Donetsk Water Filtration Station, a crucial source of clean water for both sides of the conflict, came under shelling. About 10 projectiles landed in a reservoir that feeds the filtration plant, the company said. It was not immediately clear whether this affected supplies to customers.

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