Rebels in Ukraine say commander is killed in a car bombing

Posted at 12:22 PM, Feb 04, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-04 15:22:36-05

A top rebel commander in eastern Ukraine was killed when his automobile exploded, along with another person, rebels said Saturday, blaming Ukraine's special services for the blast.

Ukraine's military, meanwhile said three soldiers were killed in shelling over the past day.

Fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatist rebels has escalated over the past week in eastern Ukraine, killing at least 33 people, including civilians, and wounding several dozen. More than 9,800 people have died since the war began in April 2014.

The rebels' Lugansk Information Center reported Saturday that Lugansk People's Militia commander Oleg Anashchenko died in the explosion along with an unnamed person.

The surge in violence began the day after Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone with President Donald Trump for the first time since Trump entered the White House. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has cast the outburst of fighting as an argument for continuing Western sanctions imposed on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine.

Poroshenko and Trump have scheduled a phone call for later Saturday.

The government-held town of Avdiivka, just north of the main rebel-controlled city of Donetsk, has been the focus of the fighting. A temporary cease-fire had been called to allow workers on both sides to restore electrical service to freezing residents reduced shelling for much of the day. But the Ukrainian military said rebel forces began a mortar barrage of Avdiivka in the evening.

The daily shelling has left locals in the industrial town of about 35,000 traumatized.

Olga Duzhikova's apartment was hit by a shell.

"I lost my head. I don't know what I felt — I took my kids to hide them and I was waiting for someone to help me leave the place," she said.

Trump's repeated promises to improve relations with Russia have fueled concern in Ukraine that Washington would back off some of the sanctions. But the new US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has said sanctions imposed for Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea will remain.