Ukraine says 'many dead' after rebels 'fire on fleeing civilians' trying to leave conflict area

KIEV (AFP) - Kiev on Monday accused pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine of killing "many" civilians trying to leave a conflict-torn area by shelling them with equipment provided by Moscow, as crisis talks to halt months of bloodshed failed to make a breakthrough.

Kiev's military said "many people died, including women and children" when insurgents shot at residents escaping fierce fighting around the besieged separatist city of Lugansk with "Grad rocket launchers and mortar guns given by Russia." The allegations came after a five-hour meeting between the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany broke up without agreement on how to end more than four months of conflict that has killed over 2,100 people and left the region facing a humanitarian catastrophe.

Moscow has demanded that Ukraine government forces halt an offensive against main separatist strongholds. Meanwhile Kiev accuses Russia of pouring in more arms to save the unravelling insurgency. "One place where we cannot report positive results is in, first and foremost, establishing a ceasefire and (starting) a political process," Russia's top diplomat Sergei Lavrov said on Monday. Mr Lavrov said the ministers would however meet again and hoped that some agreement "on paper" was possible soon.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said there had been "five hours of most difficult discussion" and suggested more meetings were needed "to move forward". "There is no place for compromise when the country has to cross its red line." he wrote on Twitter in the early hours of Monday.

A French diplomatic source told AFP that talks also focused on securing Ukraine's eastern border and delivering humanitarian aid to the afflicted populations.

"There was some progress, but the context is difficult," the source said. "Now the ministers have to speak with their presidents."

Fierce fighting centred around the second-largest rebel bastion Lugansk over the weekend as Kiev said its troops had battled their way into an outlying suburb.

Nine soldiers were killed in clashes with insurgent fighters across the strife-torn east over the past 24 hours, a military spokesman said Monday.

The army said rebels in the Lugansk region also shot down a Ukrainian warplane on Sunday.

Those left in the city have been facing an increasingly severe humanitarian crisis with water and power cut for over two weeks as Kiev's army inched closer to regaining control.

In Ukraine's largest rebel stronghold of Donetsk people were queueing to buy drinking water from kiosks after fighting forced local authorities to turn off supplies.

The city hall urged residents late Sunday to stock up as water was turned off and central hotels instructed clients to fill their bathtubs.

Fighting around the city has also severed the railroad link between Donetsk and the rest of the country, leaving few options to flee the city for its remaining residents.

The United Nations estimates over 285,000 people have already fled the fighting in the east.

Ukraine has accused Moscow of propping up the insurgency by sending a steady flow of weapons and militants across the long porous border, claims apparently bolstered by boasting from a top rebel leader over the weekend that his forces had just received over a thousand fighters "trained in Russia".

But Mr Lavrov denied yet again that Moscow has sent any arms across the border and said that the issue "was not specifically discussed" at the Berlin meeting.

Meanwhile, a massive aid convoy sent from Moscow was still waiting to be checked near Ukraine's restive border as talks dragged on about allowing them to cross into rebel-held territory.

"We are still waiting for security guarantees for the convoy," said Ms Galina Balzamova, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, the organisation overseeing the controversial cargo shipment.

Kiev and the West fear the convoy could be a Russian ploy to prop up the ailing insurgency but Moscow insists it just wants to get desperately-needed aid to the stricken region.

"After inspection, the convoy trucks will be sealed," Ms Balzamova said.

An AFP journalist heard blasts coming from across the Ukrainian side of the border at the weekend and saw Moscow's military vehicles roaming the Russian side.

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