Violence flares in Ukraine flashpoint after Crimea claims

Shyrokyne (Ukraine) (AFP) - Ukrainian paratrooper Boroda says pro-Russian rebels have recently ramped up their shelling of one key village -- a move he links to Moscow's claim of a Kiev plot against annexed Crimea.

Boroda, or "the Beard", is the nom de guerre of a member of an air assault battalion defending the once quiet coastal resort village of Shyrokyne that has turned into one of the bloodiest battlefields of the 27-month separatist revolt.

Few buildings are left standing in the little village and the quaint sailing boats that once lined its sunny shore have long been destroyed.

"These attacks clearly began in response to Putin's statement about Crimea," the 45-year-old Ukrainian fighter told AFP as the echo of distant shelling shook the air.

"But I doubt that the Russian side is prepared for an all-out offensive."

Tensions between Moscow and Kiev have been boiling over since President Vladimir Putin last Wednesday accused the pro-Western leadership in Kiev of attempting an armed incursion into Crimea that killed two Russian servicemen.

Kiev has furiously denied the allegations, and Ukraine asked Russia at an emergency UN Security Council session last Thursday to come up with the "proof" that any such attack happened.

Moscow responded by airing the alleged confessions of some of the captured purported Ukrainian plotters, and beefing up its forces on the Black Sea peninsula it seized in 2014.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has also put his troops on a heightened state of alert as Russia conducts naval exercises around Crimea that have NATO and the United States particularly concerned.

Officials and analysts remain undecided about whether Putin's charge meant that Russia intended to step up a war it formally denies backing, but which has already claimed more than 9,500 lives.

Yet soldiers like Boroda believe that the intensification of bombardments by the insurgents that began the night following Putin's announcement suggests Moscow and its alleged proxy forces are manoeuvering.

"Most likely, they are trying to gain some political advantage from this escalation," he said.

- Land bridge to Crimea -

Shyrokyne lies just 10 kilometres (six miles) east of Mariupol -- a strategic industrial port whose control would provide the rebels with new financial resources as well as a potential land bridge to Crimea.

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have recorded in Shyrokyne regular violations of a ceasefire and a political reconciliation agreement signed in the Belarussian capital Minsk in February 2015.

But the truce has done little to end the daily loss of life of civilians and fighters on both sides.

The deadline for a permanent solution to one of Europe's deadliest conflicts since the 1990s Balkan wars has now been extended from the end of last year to the start of 2017.

"The last heavy rounds of shelling happened Saturday morning," Ukrainian battalion commander Vyktor Sikoza told AFP.

"They are shooting at us like they were at the start of the war, in 2014. The Minsk Agreements are not being respected here by our opponent."

The 30-year-old commander is certain that the insurgents' main goal is not to capture Shyrokyne but to break their way through to Mariupol and then Crimea -- effectively cutting off eastern Ukraine's access to the Sea of Azov.

"Their main goal is to establish a pathway through Shyrokyne to Mariupol," Sikoza said.

"This village itself is of little value to them."

- 'Anything but peace' -

Both OSCE monitors and Ukrainian military leaders confirm that fighting in Shyrokyne is flaring to levels not seen for months.

"What we heard here last night and this morning -- and what you hear regularly -- can be called anything but the peace for which the UN secretary-general called for," the OSCE's deputy chief monitor Alexander Hug said in Mariupol on Saturday.

But pro-Moscow militia leaders blame the flare up on Ukrainian soldiers who they say have launched hundreds of shells on their positions.

"The moment the OSCE mission left Mariupol (on Saturday), the number of daily attacks increased from 200 to 700," rebel commander Eduard Basurin told AFP.

"Our forces are not advancing and staying put where they are."

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