Avdiivka civilians caught in crossfire as clashes rage

Thousands without heating or electricity in town of Avdiivka as Ukrainian troops and rebels remain locked in fighting.

Thousands of civilians are living in desperate conditions without heating and electricity in the eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka as clashes between government forces and pro-Russian rebels intensify.

The warring sides have been locked in heavy battles for control of the government-held town for days, with each side accusing the other of launching attacks and firing heavy artillery in violation of a two-year truce agreement.

The Ukrainian army said on Saturday that one of its soldiers had been killed in the clashes that have claimed the lives of at least 35 people in the past week.

The rebels agreed with Russia and Ukraine, on Wednesday, to agree to the calls for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the flashpoint town of Avdiivka by Sunday.

But the demand for the fighting to stop has not halted the violence and so far there are few signs of the big guns being pulled back from around the town of 25,000,  just five kilometres north of the rebels’ de facto capital of Donetsk .

On Saturday, a rebel military commander was also killed in a car bombing that appeared to have been linked to an internal dispute over power and unrelated to the ongoing fighting.

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The clashes have damaged infrastructure and left residents without water and electricity amid freezing conditions, with temperatures plunging to -20C at night.

Girgi Nikiforov, an elderly resident who has had no heating for days, said the situation was dire.

“Lately, there has been shelling from that side,” he said, pointing to rebel-held areas. “Our building was hit. The situation has been terrible for so long and it is especially tense now.”

Olga, an Avdiivka resident, told Al Jazeera that many of the buildings bore the scars of war and death.

“I was sitting on the sofa listening to the radio … suddenly there was a huge explosion – it was like everything went into slow motion. The windows were smashed in,” she said.

“Later, there was a second explosion which was so loud we lost our hearing for a few seconds. A shell had hit the fourth floor. Thank God, the people who own it weren’t there at the time. Otherwise, we would have had to dig them from under the rubble.”

Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from the town, said that, with rebel positions only a few kilometres away, there was no safe place for the people to seek refuge.

“A government agency has set up a camp with a soup kitchen and tents to keep residents warm amid the desperately cold weather,” he said.

“Inside the tents, however, people say more government help is needed.”

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Ludmilla Voronina, an elderly woman from the area, told Al Jazeera: “I have no job and no pension, so how can I live? I tried to pick up aid but it was so crowded, I couldn’t get anything.”

Ukraine has been fighting pro-Russian rebels since early 2014 when mass protests brought down a pro-Russian government and replaced it with one seeking closer ties with the EU and US.

Kiev accuses Moscow of direct military involvement in the conflict, as well as military support for the rebels.

The Kremlin denies backing the rebels and only admits that Russian “volunteers” and off-duty soldiers have entered the war zone on their own free will.

The conflict has killed nearly 10,000 people since 2014, more than half of them civilians, and plunged Moscow’s relations with the West to a post-Cold War low.

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Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies