Rocket and mortar fire Monday hit a convoy of buses filled with civilians trying to evacuate an area of heavy fighting near the surrounded city of Luhansk in east Ukraine, burning people alive in the vehicles, the Ukrainian government said.
The government and separatist leaders traded accusations that the other side fired on the convoy. Civilians have been evacuating Luhansk for days, as government troops press an offensive to regain control of the two remaining rebel strongholds, Luhansk and Donetsk.
Andriy Lysenko, the spokesman for Ukraine's National Security Council, said "dozens" have died, including children, according to the Associated Press. The attack occurred when pro-Russian separatists fired on the convoy as it passed between the communities of Hryaschuvatym and Novosvitlivkoyu, Lysenko said.
Lysenko did not provide an exact number of fatalities, but told reporters at a briefing that "many people were killed, including women and children," according to the Ukrainian news site Pravda.
The attack was carried out with a massive barrage of mortars and Grad rockets at 9:40 a.m., according to Ukrainian national military spokesman Anatoly Proshyun."The force of the blow on the convoy was so strong that people were burned alive in the vehicles," Proshyun said.
A senior rebel leader told Reuters his forces do not have the military capability to conduct such an attack, and accused the government of regularly attacking the area with Russian-made Grad missiles.
Government forces have bombed the road constantly with airplanes and Grads, said Andrei Purgin, deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. "It seems they've now killed more civilians like they've been doing for months now. We don't have the ability to send Grads into that territory."
The Ukrainian military has been fighting since April against pro-Russian separatists it says are supported and supplied by Russia.The separatists also claim Russia is aiding their cause, but Moscow denies providing military help.
About 500 civilians a day have been leaving the city, a rebel stronghold under siege from government forces, where the International Committee of the Red Cross says water and electricity have been cut off.
A separatist leader in Donetsk said his fighters recently received "heavy reinforcements" from Russia.
Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told Russian radio station Echo Moskvy on Sunday that 1,200 fighters who received four months of training in Russia recently arrived with 30 tanks and 120 armored vehicles, according to the online publication The Interpreter.
Government forces Sunday launched an artillery and tank barrage on Yasynuvata, a Donetsk suburb, according to tweets by reporter Christopher Miller of the KyivPost. Smoke was rising all around Donetsk on Sunday and the city of Yasynuvata was "still very much contested," Miller said.
Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko on Monday signed into law a measure that expanded police powers in the east, allowing officers to use deadly force against "terrorists" without prior warning.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Ukraine and Russia reached an agreement for Ukrainian border and customs officials to inspect a Russian convoy of more than 200 trucks that are alleged to be carrying humanitarian supplies for civilians in the besieged cities, according to Russia. The trucks have been stuck in Russia near the border since last week, as the Kiev government insists on close inspections to make sure the contents are not military supplies.
The inspections will begin "shortly," but exactly when is still unclear, Red Cross spokesman Ewan Watson in Geneva said.
After inspections are complete, the Red Cross will still need assurances from the combatants in east Ukraine that the convoy will be allowed to pass through safely, Watson said.